By Zach Colten
On Nov. 5, a group of about 40 veterans – some students – family, faculty, and other community members gathered for a luncheon in the Forum. The event was held both to celebrate the lives of these citizen-service members, and to hear from guest speaker Courtney Thraen, the executive director of local nonprofit Downtown Framingham, Inc.
The event kicked off with a military salute ceremony. As the 2014 Armed Forces Medley was projected on screen, the veterans in attendance from each branch of the U.S. military stood in succession to applause, with many joining in the accompanying song.
Once the medley was over, the event broke briefly for a luncheon. As we grubbed on some catered comfort food, I got to know the people sitting at my table.
First, I was introduced to Michael and Donnalee Shain. The husband and wife duo are involved in Thanks To Yanks!, a charity organization dedicated to helping Massachusetts veterans. They provide a variety of goods and services – for example, every year, they conduct a drive to collect items for care packages, which they then distribute back to veterans in need.
“It’s our way of giving something back to the community,” Michael said.
Donnalee said they also host other events throughout the year, such as a magic show at the Bedford Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and a commemorative 9/11 dinner.
This dinner is meant to be a “random act of kindness to say, ‘Thank you for your service,’” Michael said in an interview with The Milford Patch.
Across from the Shain couple at our table was Enjeley Mora, a Framingham State graduate currently pursuing her master’s at Simmons College, where she studies nutrition. Mora is also a veteran, having served for three years in the Army Corps.
Mora discussed her path growing up in a rough neighborhood in Lynn, where she often felt trapped. She believed college wasn’t an option for her at first, because she was told she wasn’t “smart enough for college.”
It was only after she followed in her brother’s footsteps, joining the military – initially just for the sake of traveling – that she was able to lift herself out of those circumstances and gain a wider view of both the world, and her own potential, she said.
“I don’t know if I would have had the motivation to pursue my education if it weren’t for the Army and the G.I. Bill,” Mora said.
Because she served a full 36-month term in the Army, Mora was able to qualify for the full G.I. Bill, which paid for her education at Framingham State. Her choice to come to FSU was aided in great part, Mora added, by the Office of Veterans Services, headed by Jacquelyn Wolf, who was also in attendance at the luncheon.
Following the meal, Thraen spoke about her experience in the Navy and how it benefitted her career after her service.
Thraen has had a long and successful career thanks to her military and educational background. She spoke about three central themes crucial to her success – “Theory, real-world practice, and driving quality results.”
As she moved from a corporate job helping small businesses grow, to a job processing medical disability claims for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Thraen said she tried to “absorb everything like a sponge,” learning to work with severely injured veterans.
“With a lot of pride, I worked my cases from start to finish.”
Despite her rewarding work at the VA, Thraen felt she still had more to give. “With a heavy heart,” she left the job to pursue a career in academia, and ultimately was able to get her feet wet in the field she studied in school – city planning.
Downtown Framingham, Inc. has become Thraen’s passion project. The nonprofit was founded with the goal of revitalizing the downtown area and highlighting small, independently owned businesses, achieved through various fundraising efforts. She also sits on the city’s Homeless/Opioid Task Force.
Thraen emphasized no matter what job she was employed in, her focus was always “serving businesses, veterans, students, and in Framingham, serving the entire downtown community.”
Thraen said her inward gnawing to “do more and capitalize on [her] skill sets” came from her senior enlisted leaders at Ohio State, aboard the U.S.S. Momsen DDG-92, and at Massachusetts Maritime Academy.
She explained during her time as a junior officer, “each of these senior enlisted leaders guided me so well, that they drove a higher belief in me than I sometimes had during my own periods of anxiety or self-doubt.”
Thraen reminded the student veterans in attendance to “lean on lessons learned and those numerous pep talks from your own personal military heroes to drive your own personal confidence, no matter the crazy twists and turns of life.
“Say yes to new opportunities, feel confident quitting when timely, and always serve regardless of where you land,” Thraen said.
She added, “Above all, love the service that you do.”