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ADELPHI, Md. (May 31, 2016)—Volunteers who care for severely injured military are often spouses, partners, family or friends who sacrifice careers and education in the long-term effort to help their loved ones recover.

The Pillars of Strength Scholarship Program was specifically created in 2013 to help these exceptional volunteers reclaim their educational opportunity through full scholarships to attend University of Maryland University College (UMUC).

The Program is supported and managed by The Blewitt Foundation and the Yellow Ribbon Fund, in association with University of Maryland University College, the nation’s premier global provider of higher education to our nation’s military since 1947.

The latest, and largest class of Pillars of Strength Scholarship recipients―five new awardees in all―will be introduced during a reception at the Marriott Inn and Conference Center in Adelphi, Maryland, on Wednesday, June 8, at 4 p.m.

Richard F. Blewitt, founder of The Blewitt Foundation, said: “Expanding our full scholarships to five very deserving heroes in their own right, gives us hope that we are able to secure support to expand the program even further."

Sandralee Jensen of Alexandria, Virginia, is among them. In her scholarship-application essay, she described the long and, perhaps, indefinite journey to care for her severely injured husband, who suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) during his U.S. Army service and has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“My role has included being a cheerleader, an advocate, personal secretary, chauffeur, facilitator, exercise coach, treatment coach, stabilizer, record keeper, and the critical responsibility of financial provider.  Finding balance and financial stability has, at times, been elusive.”

Jensen, who compared her journey to a roller-coaster ride “with its soaring heights, plummeting depths, and unexpected twists and turns,” said of their lives—hers, her husband’s, and their children’s: “[They] have been redefined by new norms, and we are working hard to embrace and accept these changes.”

Terri Jo Yarnell of Iola, Kansas, wrote in her essay that winning the scholarship would not only benefit her and her family, “but hopefully many more veterans suffering from PTSD, because [with a bachelor’s degree from UMUC] I plan to seek employment with the VA to help treat veterans.”

Her husband was in the infantry, and his Army unit was the first to set foot in Baghdad during the 2007 surge. In 2008, he was honorably discharged due to PTSD. The Yarnell’s have three children, including a 12-year-old who was diagnosed with autism in 2015.

For Valerie Gray, who resides with her family in Elgin, South Carolina, caregiving duties can be tough. “But it’s the toughest job you’ll ever love,” she said.

Her husband, David, was severely wounded in Afghanistan in 2011 when his vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED).  He suffers from PTSD, which requires Gray's constant attention.

“I believe my most important job is helping David manage the day-to-day things that we all take for granted,” she said in her essay.

In fact, Gray is not only primary caregiver for her husband, but also for their daughter, Nadia, who was diagnosed in 2012 when she was three years old with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.  Nadia completed chemotherapy in February 2015 and is in remission.

Within hours of the deadline to submit her Pillars of Strength application, Jessica Brewer of West Lafayette, Indiana, began to write down just how much life would change for the better if she were to receive a scholarship.  She expressed a familiar feeling of guilt for possibly robbing another, more deserving caregiver of the opportunity.

Her husband was a Marine who downplayed his injuries and felt he didn’t deserve the specialized support and treatment he needed.  For years, she had told him that even though most of his injuries weren’t physical, they were most definitely real and worthy of attention and treatment.

She fought each day, she said, to get him the surgery that would fix his leg, and to support him and take him to mental health appointments for his PTSD. “Every task just piled one on top of the other, and when he was medically separated from active duty, the burden of caregiver got greater.” So, Brewer and her husband and daughter moved across the country to be closer to family who could help in providing care.

“I have had a dream of going back to school to get my master’s degree, but the cost of the degree has held me back,” she wrote. It’s a dream that holds important financial implications. Her husband has not been able to hold full-time employment since he suffered his injuries.

For Marli Jakubisin of Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, the term “caregiver” has held many different meanings over the last four years. Her husband was injured by an IED while serving in the Marine Corps in Afghanistan in 2012, resulting in amputation, broken bones, burns, lung trauma, TBI, and PTSD.

She spent three years by his side at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, while he recovered from his injuries. “Throughout the many times he became impatient, I stood as his advocate, his sole support system.”

During periods of out-patient care, she pushed his wheelchair, bathed him, dressed him, administered medication and attended his appointments. She was also “a shoulder to cry on, and the first to hug him when he accomplished his next milestone in recovery.”

But, Jakubisin shared in her essay, living in the civilian world after leaving Walter Reed has posed a new set of problems that had been overlooked for the last several years. “My husband’s brain injury and PTSD affects our lives on a daily basis.”

To provide the level of care needed, Jakubisin had to drop out of The Ohio State University and quit her job.  The Pillars of Strength scholarship and a degree from UMUC would help her achieve the salary necessary to be the sole provider in their household, she said.

“UMUC is proud and privileged to support these five very deserving women,” said Javier Miyares, president of the university. “We will be with them every step of the way in this important next chapter of their journey.”

“These opportunities are life-changing for the scholars and their families, and are a natural extension of our comprehensive Caregiver Program that provides practical support from the warrior’s arrival at the hospital to the transition home where new challenges often arise,” said John Adams, executive director of the Yellow Ribbon Fund. “No other scholarship program makes itself available to ALL volunteer caregivers, including spouses and partners, parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends.”

Prior to this year’s class of recipients, the program had awarded a total of five scholarships. Read the inspiring stories of Emily Ball, Danielle Kelly, and Beverly Poyer from 2013 and Vanessa Engelhardt and Michelle Yi from 2015 by visiting the Pillars of Strength Scholarship Program site.

About The Blewitt Foundation

The Blewitt Foundation supports military families experiencing severe injuries and invites financial support to assist the foundation in carrying out its mission for special men and women who are suffering -- and who, with their families, have sacrificed so much for all of us. Our mission is based on the belief that military family members serve, as well.

About the Yellow Ribbon Fund

Since 2005, the Yellow Ribbon Fund has provided practical support for injured service members and their families while they’re recovering in the Washington, DC, area and after they return to their hometowns. The Bethesda, Maryland, based nonprofit offers free rental cars, cab rides, hotels, career and educational mentoring, massages for family caregivers, family-friendly outings, and more.

About University of Maryland University College

University of Maryland University College (UMUC) is a world leader in innovative educational models with award-winning online programs in disciplines that are in high demand in today’s increasingly technical, global workplace. UMUC offers open access with a global footprint and a specific mission — to meet the learning needs of students whose responsibilities may include jobs, family, and military service. A pioneer in distance education since 1947, UMUC today is harnessing the power of learning science and technology to deliver high quality, low cost, accessible higher education. UMUC takes pride in its 69-year history of service to the military and currently enrolls an estimated 50,000 military service members, veterans, and their dependents each year.