Kaitlynne Miller has found community, friends and now a new job, all thanks to a Red Cross training program. As a new Army spouse with a husband who is currently deployed, Miller, moved to Ft. Riley, Kansas in May. Like many military spouses, she found relocating alone to a new place without a job, family support or a social network daunting.
“I wasn’t sure what path I was on or what I wanted to do professionally. I was alone in a new place and it was overwhelming,” Miller said. She met another military spouse who recommended that she connect with the Red Cross and become a volunteer. Soon, Miller applied and was selected for the Red Cross Dental Assistant Program, a seven-month competitive training course offered at military installations around the globe.
“I think my involvement with the Red Cross Dental Assistant Program was meant to be,” she said.
Students enrolled in the program must be Red Cross volunteers. Next, they must complete a three-week intensive study and pass an exam. From there, they move on to the clinical portion of the program, where they complete 700 hours of dental training alongside dentists and medical staff and assist with chairside procedures before graduating.
Marci Gibson serves as a program lead who mentors and trains students. Gibson says her involvement with the program is a labor of love. She was in the first dental assistant graduating class at Ft. Riley in 2004 and has been involved with the program ever since. “These people and this program are rewarding to my heart,” she said.
Both Gibson and Miller stress that camaraderie among students is key to the experience. Miller says that she and the other nine students in her class, all of whom are military spouses or military children, connected throughout the program and that everyone understood the unique challenges of military life.
“We were all nervous but we are all in the same position so it was easy to form close bonds. I even met another spouse from my home state of Indiana, which was comforting,” Miller said.
Miller says that joining this Red Cross program helped her find purpose during a challenging transition. “I wasn’t sure what I was going to do or what path I was on,” she said.
“At first, I was excited that the program helped me make friends and get me out of the house but soon it became more. You learn new skills every single day. And then, you become so fluent in it, you’re like ‘I can do this for the rest of my life!’” Miller said.
For Gibson, Miller’s story is emblematic of the goals of the program. “I have seen nothing but success from my students,” she said. Gibson says that over the years, she’s remained in close contact with her students and has watched their careers flourish. “This is happiness for me — to watch them grow in the dental field,” she said.
Red Cross Program Manager Katrina Velarde says that this program gives military families the opportunities to learn new skills that have particular resonance within military life. Service members typically move to a new unit every two to three years. This often means moving states, sometimes countries, finding a new home, new schools for their children and typically their spouse will need to find a new job. With these compounding challenges, military spouses have historically faced high rates of unemployment, and for the past decade, unemployment rates for spouses have been around 24%, a number far greater than their civilian counterparts.
Velarde says that this is one of the many positive aspects of the program since military spouse employment remains a challenge for so many. “Our team at Fort Riley invests in these students. We understand how hard military life is and we want to give these students something tangible to take with them,” she said.
Velarde says that one of the goals of the program is to provide spouses with transferable skills applicable to any military base or civilian community. “We want them to be successful and know that the Red Cross is there to support them and open doors they never knew existed,” she said.
Miller says that she highly recommends the program to others. “It might seem scary at first, but it is worth it,” she said. “Not only did I walk away from this experience with a job and a career that I wanted to pursue, but I can go further and continue my training as my career develops,” she said. “I’m really excited.”