Alina Perez never trained as an athlete or served in the military, but that hasn't stopped her from soaring as an Eagle with Team RWB.
Perez, 38, is one of about 30 civilians in the Nassau-Suffolk chapter of the national organization (the RWB stands for Red, White and Blue), whose mission is to provide healthy social and fitness activities for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Perez, of Port Washington, has two uncles who served in Vietnam. She says, because of them, she has always had respect for and interest in military culture. She learned about the nonprofit in January 2014 when friends who were veterans' advocates and members of Team RWB's New York City chapter invited her to a social.
"The people I met were some of the nicest, most positive, encouraging people I had ever met," Perez said. "I explained I wasn't athletic, and they said it didn't matter."
Perez began attending Team RWB events in Manhattan regularly, but was soon asked by the New York office to help with the development of the fledgling Long Island chapter of Team RWB this past fall. She created the group's Facebook page, and helped to develop promotional materials and organize their events. Soon, she had formed close bonds with the members of the Long Island chapter.
"This has become my social life," said Perez, who is pursuing a master's degree in social work at Touro College's campuses in Brooklyn and Manhattan, with a focus on working with military families.
While Perez said she hopes more civilians will become involved with the local chapter, she cautions that volunteering for Team RWB is not like helping clean up the local beach or pitch in at an area animal shelter.
"We're not a regular volunteer organization in that someone would come and do a service project or eight hours of work," Perez said. "This is more about building a network of friendships with these vets. Through that comes the sense of service."
Perez stresses that being either a runner in super shape or a veteran who understands military terminology is not a prerequisite for joining Team RWB.
"Some of them run; I walk," she said with a laugh. "I'm not a high-level athlete."
What she has become is an Eagle, a part of the team.
"After a while we all blend together and you don't know who's a vet and who's a civilian," she said. "It's going to sound cheesy, but Red, White and Blue is like a family."
How to join Team RWB
Team RWB (Red, White and Blue) is looking for volunteers who want to go a step or two beyond saying "Thank you for your service" to the veterans of the nation's post-9/11 wars.
"You don't have to be a runner or an athlete or even a vet," said Nick Auletta, the team leader for the Long Island chapter. "It could be just coming out and saying hello at one of our events, or having a cup of coffee with one of our members."
On April 18, Team RWB will participate in Run, Ride, Rebuild Long Beach, an all-day event to help with post-superstorm-Sandy rebuilding efforts that includes a race and a resources expo.
For more information or to volunteer, go to teamrwb.org or visit nwsdy.li/teamRWB
Other volunteer opportunities
The mission of Team Rubicon is twofold: disaster readiness and response, and helping veterans reintegrate into civilian life. Many of the California-based nonprofit's volunteers are veterans who often have special skills, but civilians are welcome too. "We're looking for people who like to get dirty and who appreciate what we're trying to do for veterans also," said regional spokesman Jon Connors.
Contact: teamrubiconusa.org; 310-640-8787
Team Semper Fi, started by wives of Marines serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, is made up of servicemen and -women who have suffered serious war wounds and are using sports and outdoor activities as part of their road to recovery. The Semper Fi Fund provides the team with coaches, specialized sporting equipment and entry fees and travel expenses to athletic events. Athletes also have a chance to get high-level training from former and current Olympic and Paralympic athletes through U.S. Paralympics.
Contact: Team Semper Fi coordinator Elizabeth O'Connell, 516-567-6014; firstname.lastname@example.org;nwsdy.li/semperfi
For more volunteer opportunities, contact the LONG ISLAND VOLUNTEER CENTER at 516-564-5482; longislandvolunteercenter.org