Today's extra episode is with Jennifer Barnhill, the COO of Partners in PROMISE, which is a nonprofit organization helping to smash stigmas and tell stories around EFMP. Jennifer Barnhill is also a freelance writer with a focus on military family advocacy, a Navy spouse and mother of three. Episode 119 of the Moments with an MEO podcast is about bucking the status quo through surveys and activism.
This is a special episode about Partners in Promise.
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Jennifer Barnhill 0:00
We found that a lot of families did not want to enroll in the EFMP program. The exceptional family member program is EFMP. And it is a mandatory enrollment program for military children and spouses. They say military dependents, but I hate that word. So I choose to not say, who have exceptional needs either physical or educational needs. So that could be someone who has severe allergies or a child who's in special education.
All right, Jennifer, I am so excited to welcome you to the moments than me yo Podcast. Today, we are talking about basically what you've been reporting on and what has already gotten the buzz about military spouse community, and in particular, your project with military spouse volunteerism, which is going to be really exciting to chat about. I know that according to your bio, you are a freelance writer with a focus on military family advocacy. You're the CEO and lead researcher at Partners in promise, which is a nonprofit organization that we're going to talk about. And you are also one of the hosts or the host of partners in promise podcast, which I would love to also chat about today. I know that you are a navy spouse of 15 years and a mother of three and your work within partners and promise and other even personal surveys that you've done and to learn more about our communities has been cited and promoted and talked about in all of the different places. So I'm really, really excited to welcome you.
Jennifer Barnhill 1:49
Thank you so much for having me. I every time I hear like my own bio, I don't know about anyone else. It
just feels like a little weird. Like,
Jennifer Barnhill 1:55
have I really done all that stuff, I guess so. That's why I drink so much coffee.
I love it. I love it. So why don't you start by just I know I gave your official intro but just tell us who is Jennifer?
Jennifer Barnhill 2:09
Oh, goodness, um, as you kind of mentioned, my background is in reporting as far as my professional background, I'm originally from New Jersey, which you know, I don't have the accent really, other than the passion for pizza. You know, New Jersey, I haven't lived there since I was 18 moved around quite a bit with my husband, I know we're gonna kind of go into the military story, who I am. I really love research. I love writing. I really am passionate about helping this community and solving problems that seem unsolvable. And that's kind of, I guess, me in a nutshell, bucking the status quo. It's really one of my favorite things.
I love that so much. So tell us what is your love story? How did you meet your spouse?
Jennifer Barnhill 2:47
I had a mutual friend. Of course, we always just like having random meet up story. I met my husband at a beach house that a friend arranged. I actually was working at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC. And he was attending the Naval Academy. I didn't know when I met him that he was in the Navy. I just saw him he was wearing a normal t shirt. He had the haircut right. But it was the summer so he didn't quite fit the like, uniform of the military, even when they're in civilian clothes. Like didn't know it was a I was hoodwinked, I guess starting to like him. You know, it was wonderful. We dated, you know, I was working and he was in school. So it was a different environment. But, you know, we kind of got to know each other in a more traditional way and then got married, and I stopped my career as we often do do this unfeminist things of, you know, following your heart instead of your career. And maybe that's because I'm a geriatric millennial, and so maybe, maybe I would have made different choices, but I'm super happy with the ones that I made. We moved to Pensacola, San Diego, Japan, California, back to Japan, Nevada, all the places. So that's kind of I mean, a little bit of our love story. We didn't get into the love lovey dovey parts, just the logistics.
That's okay. That's okay. You know, it's really interesting to me, because I know the struggles that I had going from completely independent climbing the corporate ladder, I've got these big goals and dreams, I don't need anybody to all of a sudden having a life that really isn't built for that kind of a spouse for your service member. What was it like for you going from bucking the status quo to Oh, great. Now I have to, you know, take back my own goals and dreams a little bit in order to kind of fit in to the status quo of this new community. I'm part of what was that journey like for you?
Jennifer Barnhill 4:52
Well, I mean, I just didn't understand why he couldn't ask to think outside the box. He would be good Given an instruction he was, you know, we first were dating and marriage married in Pensacola. And like that first year of marriage, it was, you know, why can't you just ask your boss? If you can, if you're going to get to take leave? Or why is it that for our own wedding, you can't guarantee that you that you're gonna get time off for our own wedding. That seems crazy to me. And just understanding the way that the military works, and its structured and, you know, the chain of command and understanding there's bureaucracy, and not understanding how humans interact with that bureaucracy was like smashing my head against the wall for like, my personality. And it was really hard to get to know what it was this community, and then it really was getting connected to humans and people and friends, that helps make under first of all understand it, and then made it feel worth it, you know, not just like, a burden, it was something I could understand and get behind. And it wasn't easy. No. The person who tells me that, like, that was an easy process. I mean, I just want to learn sit at their feet and learn,
right? So obviously, being CEO of partners in promise was not your goal before you even met your spouse. So what was that transition, like for you going from whatever the dream was to partners in promise,
Jennifer Barnhill 6:24
you know, backing up, I like I said, I met my husband while I was working at the Smithsonian. And my goal was to get a PhD in architectural, you know, Renaissance architecture, live in Italy, all the things that, you know, the military lifestyle would not align very nicely with having to take a job exactly where it's offered. And it wasn't a career that really matched with anyone else who would have a driving career, that could have been, you know, any other fields, basically, I would have had to go where that job was, it was a very specific path. And, for me, it was, I was excited, of course, to pursue that path. But I also knew that I had a lot of passions, it wasn't just one. And one of those was writing. And so it's like, you know, I can take writing with me, wherever. And that's something that makes me happy. Anytime that I've moved to new location, I found ways to write and continue that part of myself. But you're right, like, my dreams, and my career passions have evolved. With every move, to be honest, I worked in as a substitute teacher. I've worked in project management a lot. And I taught English when we lived in Japan, while writing for stars and stripes, the contour stripes in Japan, that all changed for me, as far as where I am today, after something kind of personal happened, I was participating in our spouse group, I really valued the friendships that we had in those groups, and I just, you know, was going along life, living life as everyone else is. And one of our members was diagnosed with cancer, pancreatic cancer, and it was really devastating, of course, for their family. I had children around the same age as my kids. You know, it was just, I, she was a new friend, you know, we have friends, and some of them are lifelong, but she was a brand new friend. And I just was heartbroken as we all were. And luckily, her she was in San Diego, and had a really good network family and an existing friendships there. So she was well supported. But it really made me wonder, what is the support system that's in place? Like, what if she was brand new and had no connections to this area? Who would help take her children to school while she was at a medical appointment? Or how, you know, we all spend time on the hold with TRICARE? How much more is that going to happen when you're dealing with something like cancer, and then you're dealing with mental health appointments, like all the things that she had to go through, I was just so thankful that she had a support system. And that was really what kind of transitioned me away from project management towards pursuing advocacy within the military family space. It really hasn't stopped or slowed. And there's, there's been a lot of different things that I've observed. And that's kind of ultimately how I ended up at Partners and promises, but it's still a long story.
I love it. So what is partners in promise,
Jennifer Barnhill 9:31
partners and promise is an organization promised stands for protecting the rights of military children and special education. And the English major in me hates the fact that we have the capital of Oh, is a capital. But you know, aside from that acronym, it is a wonderful organization founded by Michelle Norman. She's the 2019, maybe spouse of the year. You know, the reason I joined partners and promise was after hearing her story, and I'll share a little brief version of that. So we all know what it's like to Be a military family moving around, if you have kids, it's an additional layer of complication. Dealing with schools, child care, every time you get a new job, you're hoping to get a new job, and then you're hoping to find childcare for those kids. And then on top of that, our military families and exceptional family member program or in special education, have additional layers, they're, you know, making extra appointments with TRICARE, or their new providers. They're dealing with school districts who, you know, have to help get to know their child, and then offer them that individualized education that they need to thrive. And I didn't realize but our founder, Michelle Norman, her daughter was actually sued by a school district twice. Because, you know, the part the way that the school systems and special education is set up, it really relies upon the parents to enforce the law. So if they believe that something, their child is not getting an adequate education, it's on that military parent to do legal research to understand state law, to understand special education law in order to get their access to their child's education, which is just you know, I don't know about you, but it's so many layers of pain for military families.
Yeah, not that we don't have enough on our plate already
Jennifer Barnhill 11:19
know. And it's not a comparison, either. It's just, you know, when I heard that this was something people were dealing with, it was, it was just shocking to me, something I wanted to help with. And so I joined in the middle of a pandemic, and we kind of, you know, hit the ground running and trying to help work with our legislators work with our military representatives, we're and then assist our families by providing them resources. So we kind of do all of that. And the main thing that we focus on is our annual survey. And so that is one of our biggest ways we do what we do, we don't want it to just be based on our founder story, or my story or someone else's one individual story. So by using our survey data, we kind of get a more holistic picture of what families are dealing with.
I love that. And I know that partners and promise, I know that you're a host of the podcast, do you want to talk about what that podcast is? Because if they're listening to this one, they might want to go listen to that one, too. Absolutely.
Jennifer Barnhill 12:17
The podcast is called disruptive storytelling with military changemakers. So it's really right on brand for me with, like, bucking the status quo, I guess. So it's a podcast that was also born out of our survey data, we found that a lot of families did not want to enroll in the EFMP program. The exceptional family member program is EFMP. And it is a mandatory enrollment program for military children and spouses. They say military dependents, but I hate that word. So I choose to not fit, who have exceptional needs either physical or educational needs. So that could be someone who has severe allergies, or a child who's in special education. And so those individuals need this access to medical care and educational care. And so by enrolling in this program, the intent is to ensure that when they assign you to the next location, that that location can care for you appropriately. That's the stated purpose of this program. And so, but you know, like anything, there's a lot of misconceptions and perception surrounding the program. And so this podcast kind of became focused on military stigma, and what helps shape our decision making and often, especially with EFMP, or the exceptional family member program, it is stigma around that program has led families not to enroll because they don't want to self identify as having us an exceptional need, or they don't want to be limited in where they're assigned. And so we wanted to address some of those topics of stigma, and we don't just cover EFMP we talk about mental health, we talk about what it's like to have, have your child be victimized on a military installation, talk about a general who was bipolar, who you know, was relieved of duty but then how now how he's working to help normalize talking about these things. And so it's all solutions focused and this season, we're kind of also looking at data and how data impacts our families. And so we're gonna go back to stigma and do a little bit more storytelling but all all at all it's, let's just tell some of the stories that are not told within this community and address the things that maybe we don't always feel comfortable talking
about. I love that and we are a huge advocate over here for breaking the stigma is through storytelling. That's the whole point of our podcast, just a different topic and I love that you guys took it that way and that you guys are opening up the doors not just for children, but for you know stories to be shared about every part of the military community. That's fantastic. So I know that a big thing that you guys have been doing are these surveys. Can you talk to us about what they are? How we can participate in them? And kind of like, what's the point? What's the intention behind them? Like, what do you plan on doing with this information? Yeah, so
Jennifer Barnhill 15:18
we don't want to over survey our population at all, which because we know it's annoying, no one wants to take another survey. But when it comes to special education, and EFMP, there is not data that is collected on our population, it is collected on special education, very, very niche areas, they look at EFMP. But they don't look at the special education component of that they are only looking at the medical component, which is where the money goes to pay for our care. But because the states are the ones in charge of the finances of you know, the local school districts, they are not necessarily looking at this military population. So we are right now the only organization that's dedicated to understanding military children and special education. And in order for us to make informed recommendations are for us to help our family members who may be struggling to understand what they're dealing with, we need data. And I know that's nothing, you know, it's but if you don't do anything else, if you take like 10 minutes to take a survey, that is advocacy that you're participating in, to help make it better for you, and to make better for the people coming behind you. So we really are excited about Well, first of all, we released our findings from last year, and they're available on our website, which I'm sure you could put in the show notes. Some of the key findings were just the delays that our families experience, we noticed that on average, our military families after a military move weighed 5.75 months to receive special education services, which is tantamount to a quarter of a two year tour of duty. And that is a huge loss of education for our military students. So we're advocating that our families start participating in advanced enrollment more, because that is a benefit that's available to military families through their state. And the complete list of those states that do advanced enrollment can be found the military one stores under the state policies tab. But you know, this upcoming year, we want to encourage more families to participate. So if they're in special education, and actually we're, we're extending our survey this year to cover professionals in this field. So if you're a special education teacher, or if you work in EFMP, or are you a school liaison officer, we want to understand what your experiences are, where you see the hardships faced by families so that we can see it from all angles, not just the parent angle, we want to understand the problem. But in order to understand the problem, we need to hear from every person involved. And so we're expanding our survey a little bit more, hopefully will only take 10 minutes, and it will be available. We're going to start in September, we're going to launch that that survey. So if you want to connect with us, we will send out a link once it's open.
Perfect. Now, how can we connect with you? Where can parents listening, connect with partners in promise? What does that look like?
Jennifer Barnhill 18:23
So obviously, we have our podcast, we have our website, which is the promise x.org. Through that you can sign up for our newsletter, we send out a newsletter that has military specific content for military Special Education parents. So that's you know, blogs, where you're getting tips and tricks of like how to best utilize services that are available to you or how to navigate, you know, the special education world, we're giving those customized resources, because a lot of times you find online resources for parents in general or specific to a diagnosis, but not specific to the military life. So we try to create some content for parents, we also connect our parents to leaders. So if you want to connect with us on Facebook, we're there. We're on LinkedIn.
Perfect. All right. And now a question I'm asking, what does success look like to you?
Jennifer Barnhill 19:20
Professionally, I was very thrilled by our survey, not this past year, but the year before was actually cited by the White House. And that was a personally I was thrilled, you know, when you see the work of you know, our all volunteer organization cited by the White House that means we're doing something that's right, you know, like we're trying to help our families connect and understand them and hear their stories. So that was really wonderful because it was it meant that our family stories were being seen by the leaders of this country that's huge. Yeah, that they were reading that and citing us, you know, as far as you know, personally but also a little professionally because I like to multitask. So, in 2019, my daughter, she heard me reporting about homelessness, homeless veterans in my role as a freelance reporter. And she was able to make this connection, we were driving by a military base that was subject to that one of the closures, and it was very dilapidated. And she's like, why can't we fix this? Why can't we take this military building and rehab it and make it available for homeless veterans that, you know, you're talking about, like, come on, come on, Mom, let's just go and paint the buildings, let's, you know, clean up the glass, let's really, you know, get rid of the spray paint and the bottles and all the things and she just had this idea. She drew it up, she painted one building Navy for the Navy, one green for the the army, you know, and so on, so forth. And she just had it in her mind, we're just gonna go, we're gonna go and fix these buildings for these people, because we can make it happen. And, you know, I tried to tell her, I'm like, you know, that that's harder, you know, it's those buildings are condemned. We can't just go in there and we don't own them. And she's like, well, who owns them? I was like, Well, I don't really know. But you have to email, maybe send a letter to our representative. So she did. Representative Panetta, in California here, responded to her and took a meeting with her and sat down with her and got it done. And she was in the newspaper, and then come to find out, they had already been planning to fix up these buildings. But when she saw that they were demolished and starting to rebuild. She's like, my design was like, Meredith, look what you did. And to me, the success was like teaching her not that like, Oh, that's a cute idea. But really allowing her to understand what goes into hard things. And not making it happen for her specifically. I mean, I drove her to the meeting with Panetta. But, you know, like, she did it herself. And, and for me, it was, I don't know, I just, I felt so proud of her. And, and I just hope that for all of our military kids, that they can see the problems that are they're faced in their immediate environment and do something about them.
It's so cool to because you're here breaking the status quo, testing limits, and you know, you know, going, Okay, this is a stereotype, but like, that's all it is, like, let's make this different. And you're raising the next generation to do just that. Like how cool how empowering for her and for every generation that comes after us. All right, I know we're on a time crunch. I've got one more question for you. And then I'm done. I promise. But how do you embrace being an M E? Oh,
Jennifer Barnhill 22:43
it's really hard. I would say it's, I guess, understanding that there is not one path to success. And there's not one measure of success. That sounds really corny. But I think like, that was the thing that freed me. And, and enabled me to not think that I had to find my personal fulfillment in a paying job. I mean, I do have a job where I get paid. But my, my work for partners is volunteer. And I'm not necessarily an advocate. But that's the only way I just wasn't able to do the things that I wanted to do. The moment I wanted to do them in the way I wanted to do them. So I had to let go of the preconceived notion that there was only one way and I ultimately, you know, hope that I'll get to do the things that make my heart sing, you know, and get money for it. However, it's okay if I get paid over here, for one thing, and find my passion somewhere else for now.
I love that so much. Well, Jennifer, I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for allowing and taking the time to be with me for me to ask very rudimentary questions, but I believe that a lot of people just don't know about these things. And so if we can just promote the resources and just get it in front of more ears, more eyes, I truly believe that that can make a huge impact. So thank you so much for your time today.
Jennifer Barnhill 24:12
Thank you so much for having me. Appreciate it.