U.S. Navy veteran Catrina Howard's journey in the military and into veteran activism began after she graduated from Roosevelt High School in Chicago's Albany Park.
"I was not sure if I wanted to attend college, so I decided to join the armed forces," said Howard. "My neighbor joined the Navy and convinced me that I would enjoy it more than any other branch. She said I would travel and see how the rest of the world lives."
Howard served as an engineman, maintaining the ship's emergency diesel generator, refrigeration and cooling systems while also being a safety team member. During her four years in the Navy, she was home-ported in the United Kingdom and was able to visit Italy, France, Norway, Portugal and Canada during her off-duty days/weeks.
Over the next 20 years, Howard worked as an assembler/inspector at Ford Motor Company and stationary and building engineer for Chicago Public Schools ( CPS ).
"Working at CPS had its ups and downs," said Howard. "It was very humbling to be in an education environment as an adult. I worked with dynamic teachers and supportive staff who wore many hats including being mother/father figures in just about every community.
"My position was very demanding and challenging during CPS' financial crisis. It was an interesting experience being there while many schools were being closed and teachers were fired/laid off. Parents had to make tough choices while CPS practically uprooted many support systems for Chicago's under-served communities. This was one of the reasons why I decided to move on to other work opportunities."
During her final years at CPS, Howard got her undergraduate degree in project management from American Intercontinental University and later got a master's degree in public administration from Keller Graduate School of Management.
Currently, Howard works as the Chicago Family Health Center's facilities manager where she ensures that the clinics are structurally sound and meet governmental regulations. Chicago Family Health Center provides healthcare to underserved South Side communities.
When Howard is not working at her day job, she can be found running Saving Another Female Enlistee ( SAFE )a 501( c )( 3 ) not-for-profit charitable/patriotic organization created to provide adequate and affordable housing that she founded in 2013.
"Some of my Navy sisters and brothers put together a reunion about 10 years ago," said Howard. "During the gathering, a group of us women were discussing our experiences while serving in the Navy. It was very shocking to discover that most of the women had been violated and sexually harassed while serving. A few of our shipmates struggled with drugs and alcohol addiction as they suffered in silence. This conversation led me to create SAFE where our primary goal is to encourage, and assist as needed, women veterans in accessing the benefits they are entitled to. More recently, we have helped homeless women veterans find housing and other support services."
One of the ways Howard raises awareness and money for SAFE is through fundraisers and other events. These include "Wine, Cheese and Massage" events where they invite guest speakers to talk about mental, physical and financial health and holistic wellness.
"We also network with other organizations that address health, employment, training and housing/homelessness issues," said Howard.
For each of the past three years, SAFE has held an annual LGBTQ veterans meet and greet event at Jeffrey Pub. Howard said the organizaion is planning the fourth annual event, to be held sometime this spring.
The brainchild of the LGBTQ event was a good friend of Howard's, Helena Wilson. They decided to hold these events at Jeffrey Pub because it is the oldest Black gay bar in the country.
"I was thinking, what a way to show my appreciation of this historic venue with another memorable event," said Howard. "We reached out to the owner of the bar and they opened their doors without reservation to assist in creating a space for LGBTQ veterans to meet."
Howard is seeking input from fellow LGBTQ veterans on this upcoming event. She explained that especially in this current political climate it is important for LGBTQ veterans to be recognized for the work they did to protect the United States even when they had to hid their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
"Working with fellow veterans is an honor and responsibility I take seriously," said Howard. "Vet to vet experiences remind me of the good and bad times we had while serving."
See safeenlistee.org/ for more information or to get involved with the upcoming LGBTQ event.