Eileen Harrigan remembers the thrill of being at her daughter's graduation from the Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May. And Harrigan, a former Coastie herself from Galloway Township, wants to help other mothers share that happy day with their sons and daughters. That's why she joined and supports the Coast Guard Mom in Need Fund, a group whose mission is helping mothers from across the country get to South Jersey for boot-camp graduation day.
Mostly the group, which started in 2011 in response to one California mom's message saying she couldn't afford the trip, raises money to help parents pay their way to Cape May.
But Harrigan goes one step further - or closer to the families - by welcoming the mothers to stay at her house, an hour or so up the Garden State Parkway from the Training Center. She hosted her latest proud mom Friday, when Catherine Henry, of Port Richey, Fla., stayed in Galloway to get to the Coast Guard graduation of her daughter, Jamie Smythe.
"They had a great reunion. It was just perfect," said Harrigan, who is also vice commander of the Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 85, in Brigantine. "I love watching the parents and the Coasties get back together. It just makes my day."
Seeing another ceremony at the Training Center brings back her own graduation day in Cape May, more than 35 years ago, when Harrigan was sworn in as an early full-time female recruit to the Coast Guard. It also reminds her of the day her daughter, Jessie Barringer, became part of a tradition that's important to Harrigan.
"People have their colleges. They give back to their alma mater," said Harrigan, who works for the Pleasantville School District. "Well, this is my alma mater."
The Mom in Need Fund just started in 2011, when Victoria Joy, the mother of a Coast Guard recruit from northern California, posted a Facebook message saying she couldn't get to the graduation ceremony for her son, Taj Schieve. Joy told a Coast Guard group she was in nursing school herself and money was tight, and asked if anyone could send her a picture of her son.
"Everyone was talking about how wonderful it was to be at boot-camp graduation, and I said, 'That's very nice, but I can't go,'" Joy said in an interview. "And they, as a small group of women, put together money to buy me a flight to Cape May, put me up in a hotel" and found a local person to help her find her way around South Jersey.
Since then, Joy - now a member of the Mom in Need Fund's organizing committee - says the group has helped about 30 mothers get to graduation, with average contributions of $500 each.
The group, which has about 800 members, has raised that money in a variety of ways - including bake sales. But one regular fundraiser is to sell rubber bracelets, key chains and other items on the fund's public page: Facebook.com/ourmominneed.
Joy adds that it has been a big help for the group to have a dedicated volunteer from the Coast Guard family not far from Cape May.
"Having somebody there in New Jersey is a super plus for us," Joy said. "When I went there, I didn't know anybody."
And when she left Cape May in 2011, she said, she'd learned that she had people she could count on around the Coast Guard. More important to her, her son did, too.
"I heard the keynote speaker talk about the Coast Guard as a family, a small and elite group," she said. "I teared up at that, because my son is an only child. And I just felt so much better knowing he was going to be well-connected in this network. But I found out I am well-connected, too. Our mom's group is really awake and alert and has some experienced people in it."
Back in South Jersey, the idea of a Coast Guard family was nothing new to Harrigan, which is one reason she was happy when her daughter joined about eight years ago.
Barringer, who grew up in Galloway, is stationed in Alaska now after four years in Cape May. And she never had to doubt that her mom could get there to see her formally become part of the Coast Guard.
Still, Barringer said in an email, "having my mom there at graduation was one of the best feelings in the world. For her to be able to see what I had accomplished in just 8 weeks was amazing. It was great to be able to look into the crowd and find her face there supporting me."
Harrigan, too, thought that was a pretty special moment, which is why she said she wants to make sure other mothers can know that feeling. And she said just hosting two moms so far has helped expand her family a bit more.
She's staying in touch with both women. Henry, the mother who stayed at Harrigan's place last week, already has invited Harrigan to come to Florida for a visit in Henry's home.
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