Community honors its military caregivers

Community honors its military caregivers

Consuelo Bulawan-Jessop shakes hands with North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi after the town became the first in the state to become a Hidden Heroes community. (Breeze photo by Nicole Dotzenrod)

NORTH PROVIDENCE – North Providence has been designated as the first Hidden Heroes community in Rhode Island, as town leaders have committed to better serving the caregivers of local military veterans.

“The ripple effect of what you’ve done today by signing this resolution will help caregivers for years to come,” said Consuelo Bulawan-Jessop, a North Providence resident and caregiver for her veteran husband.

Sharing her story during an event at the Meehan Overlook on Monday afternoon, Bulawan-Jessop said she was raised in a military family, enjoying the unique experience of being inside an aircraft carrier before age 5, thanks to her father’s Navy career.

In 2011, she married her husband, Christopher, a U.S. Army veteran.

“The first few years of marriage were blissful, until the many layers of my husband’s combat service began to surface,” she said. Christopher was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a traumatic brain injury, depression, tinnitus and debilitating headaches.

When it became clear her husband’s health needed to be prioritized, Bulawan-Jessop left her 25-year career as a hair stylist to work full time as Christopher’s caregiver.

Since then, Bulawan-Jessop said she had to let go of “who she used to be,” and figure out who she could be. She stepped into an assortment of roles, from the advocate, to the sole caretaker of the home, cook, emotional support person, nurse and chauffeur.

In 2018, she had the opportunity to attend a respite opportunity – a service that offers relief to military caregivers by temporarily taking over their duties. That was the first time she learned about caregiver burnout.

“Those words resonated with me deeply,” she said, adding that it’s important for caregivers to take time to focus on their own emotional, mental and physical well being.

Bulawan-Jessop was named Rhode Island’s Dole Caregiver Fellow in 2018 by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, the pre-eminent nonprofit supporting those who care for veterans at home. Her goal since then has been to help and honor the state’s hidden heroes.

She developed a wellness project for local caregivers last year to fight burnout and isolation, which ended abruptly due to COVID-19. The second attempt at running the program lasted for three weeks before the state went on pause.

“They say the third time’s the charm,” she said. The program commenced again on April 5 with two caregivers. She asked the program partners whether they thought it would be worth it to continue with only two.

“They said as long as there are caregivers here, we’ll be here,” she said. The partners offered the group the opportunity to be cared for, techniques to help them through challenging times, information on caregiver burnout and various other resources.

By the end of the program, five local caregivers were involved. Bulawan-Jessop described them as “a diverse group of ladies with amazing stories.”

Though the 12-week program is coming to a close, Bulawan-Jessop said it’s just the beginning for North Providence as a Hidden Heroes community.

Her goal now is to join forces with local organizations in the community to better serve the state’s military caregivers. There are roughly 5.5 million estimated caregivers in the U.S., providing more than $14 million annually in uncompensated care.

The Hidden Heroes campaign seeks to recognize them, connect them with resources and support.

“We may be the smallest state in the country, but we have to believe we can achieve big things together,” she said.

Mayor Charles Lombardi was in attendance to sign the declaration making North Providence the first in the state to pledge support. Lombardi thanked the caregivers for what they do, and promised to work to ensure that North Providence sets an example for other communities in supporting its caregivers.