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Cranston, Rhode Island, is home to many elderly veterans. Noticing their struggle to mow lawns or rake leaves, Anne Aldridge-Baligian, 41, wondered whether these retired soldiers in her neighborhood were also having trouble maintaining the inside of their houses. The veterans reminded her of her great-grandfather, who fought in the army in World War I and died at age 89, having lived the last eight years of his life alone as a widower. She started thinking about what would have happened to him if he hadn't had family nearby.
Anne's interest in the welfare of veterans stems from many close ties. She is also the daughter of a Vietnam navy veteran, the niece of a Vietnam army veteran and the granddaughter of a World War II army veteran. Her son is in Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps, and her daughter has friends who are entering the military. "Because of my family's connections, I have a very strong respect for our veterans, which has fueled a desire to improve their quality of life," she says.
As the owner of Ocean State House Cleaning, Anne was determined to help in the way she knew best—by enabling veterans to maintain their homes. "The desire to assist veterans developed over time," she recalls, "but the idea for Cleaning for Heroes [CFH] was like a lightbulb going off in my head."
Initially, she looked for an organization that matched cleaning services like hers with veterans requiring assistance, but she didn't find any. So in 2010 she launched the nonprofit CFH, dedicated to providing free house tidying to vets in need due to old age, physical or mental illness, lost limbs or other restrictions.
Anne bankrolled the fledgling organization with $5,000, which covered the cost of sending brochures to cleaning companies and veterans' organizations, and paid for two part-time data entry employees. (Anne does not receive a salary.) About 50 volunteers nationwide pass out brochures in places where veterans congregate, such as VA hospitals, Veterans of Foreign Wars posts and American Legion halls. Through Facebook, they recruit people to help in their city or town.
Clients are matched with a cleaning service in their area, receiving a monthly session for four months. Anne also works with companies to provide services such as landscaping, pressure washing, and window and carpet cleaning. "Disabled and elderly veterans have enough to cope with," she says. "Knowing people are taking care of their home gives them one less thing to worry about." Anne gets three to five new applications a day from vets. (Community heroes—like firefighters and police officers injured on the job—are also eligible.)
CFH is constantly searching for new providers to meet the growing demand for services, and Anne's entire family pitches in. Anne's husband, Paul, who works in information technology, assists with phone and computer support, while their three older daughters—Amanda, 21, Allison, 19, and Andrea, 17—and their son, Robert, 16, send out mailings soliciting donated services. (Baby Abigail, who is a year old, watches from her bouncy seat.) "I want my children to learn that community service is important," says Anne, "and benefits not only the people receiving help but also those giving it."
Grants and donations have enabled Anne to hire a full-time office worker and grow the organization. She now has 300 providers in 48 states and expects the number to double by the end of 2012. "For soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan, it helps their mental health and overall well-being to have a clean home," says Anne. "That way they can just focus on healing."
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.