For 12 years, Sandy Blair served on active duty in the United States Air Force. In 2005, her time with the Air Force was up, but Blair describes that separation as abrupt. The transition from military to civilian life was very hard for her, not to mention how difficult it was to raise her children at the same time.
"I was not prepared to lose my home. No one would hire me. I was told I was overqualified and that my military training as a dental hygienist did not translate into becoming a licensed hygienist," she said.
Her best friend took in Blair and her children. She experienced other hardships such as moving from Florida to Georgia to assist her parents after her father had a heart attack, and Veterans Affairs delayed its decision to grant Blair benefits or a pension determination. Blair became a police officer, but due to a prior military medical condition, that career was short-lived.
"Once you separate and return your ID card, there is no going back. There are no services that are available to you," she said. "It was a really desperate time because you realize that you're losing everything, and not only are you depressed and angry but you still have your children to take care of."
With all of these experiences she'd gone through, Blair said she was constantly thinking about how she could help female veterans who were struggling with their transition to civilian life. She felt that most organizations that assisted veterans focused on males.
Eventually Blair moved to Orcutt, where her sister lived so that her oldest son could attend college in the state. By then, Blair had become a licensed real estate agent and realized it was a good time in her life to bring her idea to fruition.
In 2018, she obtained 501c3 status for her nonprofit Operation WEBS (Women Empowered Build Strong) that works to provide safe and affordable housing for female veterans. Funds for Operation WEBS come from Blair and donations.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, of the 1.3 million active-duty service members, 170,000 are enlisted females and 40,500 are female officers.
Blair said the Department of Veteran Affairs and civilians don't understand how to address women's needs. She also felt that there was a huge need on the Central Coast for this type of an organization.
"The reason I specifically wanted to hone in on women is that we're a small population who's always been invisible," she said.
Caity Casey, Operation WEBS's communication and events director, said female homeless individuals are the largest growing population in the U.S.
She said the U.S. Department of Defense found that female veterans are three times more likely to become homeless than their male counterparts. They're also more likely to commit suicide.
"So we're talking about readjustment and reintegration into the civilian sector, which most of them have never held an adult job before. It's really hard to do that when you don't have a roof over your head," Casey said.
For Operation WEBS, the first step with helping women veterans is finding them a place to rest their heads at night.
Blair's sister donated her home, for the time being, to the nonprofit as one of the first sites of safe housing for the women. The Orcutt Stability Home, as it's called, currently has four bedrooms. Three of those rooms are occupied, and Operation WEBS is looking to use the master bedroom to house a single mother and her child.
Blair and her team then help the women to get employment or any other type of assistance they may need. The team can do this because Blair has created strong relationships with veteran and female-focused organizations throughout San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. But Blair said their services aren't just for residents in those counties; she's willing to help anyone—even out-of-state veterans—who are seeking her assistance.
This is just the first step in Blair's mission; her next is to build a tiny-home community on a ranch that she and her sister own. Her vision is to have a sustainable community so the female residents can tend to a farm that would supply them with produce. They'd also be safe to discuss hardships and potential past traumas. Blair hopes that it will be a place for women to successfully ease their way into civilian life.
Operation WEBS partnered with Operation Tiny Home—a national nonprofit that assists individuals struggling with severe housing instability by creating custom tiny-house developments and empowerment training programs—to hold an event that will support the tiny-home community.
The national nonprofit is hosting a three-day workshop from Nov. 7 through 9 where veterans, active-duty military, and the community at large are invited to a basic introduction to finish carpentry and custom multifunctional furniture and storage design for tiny-house living.
Participants will have the chance to get hands-on experience while learning about the different types of materials available. The event requires attendees to register, and the registration fee goes toward Blair's tiny-home community effort. Δ
Staff Writer Karen Garcia can be reached at email@example.com.