A Blue Star mom who has been a major player in State Farm’s Military Affinity Group (MAG) is using the eve of Veterans Day to announce she’s retiring in March from the company and group that has supported her son and so many other soldiers.
Sharon McCauley’s son Kris signed up for the Army Reserves after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and he was soon deployed. McCauley's co-workers sent cookies to Kris' unit overseas. The effort evolved into the Adopt-A-Soldier program that McCauley has led for State Farm's Military Affinity Group that provides ongoing support at home and abroad for military men and women and their families.
McCauley is bittersweet about leaving the company and the initiatives that made such a difference to soldiers, many of whom are serving in the Middle East in the war on terror.
"It's different when you're in the moment and you're working on something, but when you look back it's mind boggling the things we've done because of the energy, the passion and the community support," she said.
The emails McCauley would receive from soldiers who received care packages with comfort items, snacks and movies would often move her to tears. In fact, McCauley was so struck by one of them she has committed it to memory and offers to recite it:
"Everyone knows when the mail plane lands. It's like Christmas. It's hard to explain how you feel when you get mail from someone you've never met. You feel 10 foot tall and bulletproof to know you belong to the greatest country in the world."
Over the years, McCauley has forged partnerships to support her Adopt-A-Soldier efforts. She enlisted the fourth-grade class at Colene Hoose elementary school to write letters that were included in care packages.
In 2010, she teamed up with The Girl Scouts of Central Illinois for State Farm Adopt-A-Soldier "Operation Cookie Share," which generated donations of 24,282 cases of cookies to fill nearly 292,000 packages. According to McCauley, that amounts to $1 million in sales, which she calls a win-win because profits are funneled back into Girl Scout programs.
McCauley said her involvement with the Military Affinity Group has given her experiences beyond what she ever imagined for herself when she began her career at State Farm 22 years ago. For example, she was able to watch Barack Obama give his State of the Union speech in 2010 as a guest of former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson. She also visited wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Military Medical Center during her whirlwind visit to Washington.
"It was the experience of a lifetime," she said.
She also worked with the Illinois Army National Guard, veterans groups, schools and members of another support group, Operation Porchlight, to coordinate a Welcome Home parade for nearly 70 members of the 33rd military police battalion in September 2007. A convertible parade with veterans traveled down Main Street from Illinois State's Redbird Arena to the National Guard Armory building on south Main Street in Bloomington.
Sea to Shining Sea Ride
But McCauley says by far her most memorable experience was riding a bicycle across the country in a State Farm-sponsored Sea to Shining Sea ride. The idea was to show how veterans can overcome tremendous difficulties to accomplish a major feat. The ride covered 4,000 miles through 14 states.
McCauley will never forget the celebration when the group reached Virginia Beach, Virginia.
"Everybody just ran into the ocean and we were passing around champagne celebrating. That was an incredible experience. I've got so many stories that it would take an hour (to tell) just about that ride," said McCauley.
One soldier who was hit by an IED in Iraq and was in a wheelchair for three years was told she'll never walk again.
"I have a picture of her standing in the Atlantic Ocean in Virginia Beach holding the bike above her head that she had just ridden across the country," she said. "These people changed my life. Anytime I want to have a pity party and think 'poor me,' I remember them and think about what they accomplished."
McCauley does not want to take credit for much.
"It's the community. One person can't do this. People are basically good."
She adds, "They want to do something, and when you give them an avenue and tell them, 'Hey, we need shoes' or 'we need candy,' they overwhelmingly respond."
McCauley was a shy girl and never imagined she would meet the president, ride on a corporate jet or meet a famous country music star. She feels fortunate for her State Farm mentor, who McCauley said believed in her and empowered her.
"I'm living proof: yes, you can. If you have something you're passionate about, go for it. Don't stop at the first no," she advised.
You can also listen to GLT's full interview with McCauley:
WGLT depends on financial support from users to bring you stories and interviews like this one. As someone who values experienced, knowledgeable, and award-winning journalists covering meaningful stories in central Illinois, please consider making a contribution.