A few years ago, a young military spouse facing several challenges reached out for help. In her search for resources, she called Elva Resa Publishing, a small publisher that specializes in books for military families. Publisher Karen Pavlicin-Fragnito answered the phone.
“We sent her a variety of resources,” recalls Karen, “but I really wanted to invite that young woman to lunch or coffee with a handful of other military spouses who understand her life. That’s when I feel best supported, when I’m sitting around a table with friends who have experience with a challenge I’m facing.”
Karen was still thinking about that young spouse and gathering together with friends when she received an invitation to attend a military spouse summit sponsored by Military.com in April 2013. She flew to Virginia from Minnesota to meet with other spouses and share an idea. She spent two days gathered around tables listening to military spouses share stories and lessons learned from around the world.
At lunch she approached Terri Barnes, a longtime Stars and Stripes columnist and wife of an Air Force chaplain. Karen and Terri knew each other’s work, but had not met in person before that luncheon. They formed an immediate connection as they shared their own stories—about deployments, 9/11, children, how they got involved with supporting fellow military families, writing projects.
When Karen shared her idea to bring together many military family members around a virtual table, “lunch in a book” she called it, Terri not only agreed to write a story, she took on the role of editor.
Together they invited military family members from all service branches—service members, spouses, children, parents—to share personal stories to help other military families. More than forty military family writers responded by sharing encouraging and inspiring stories and wisdom from both everyday and extraordinary moments of their personal lives. The result is a book about life—friendship, romance, depression, parenting, careers, finances, infertility, education, children with special needs, faith, grief—amidst the added challenges of military life—frequent moves, deployment, reunion, overseas assignments, combat injury, post-traumatic stress.
“Each author wrote a story about an issue that was personal to him or her,” says Terri. Bringing the authors together and encouraging them to find their personal voice made the writers and their experiences especially real to Terri.
“The process of crafting the book made such a difference to me,” says Terri. “When I open the book to any page and read a story, I see the face or hear the voice of the author. I remember conversations and discussions, and the painstaking decisions to choose the most effective words to convey the meanings and emotions of the experience.”
Karen adds, “The whole process has been a very personal experience for many of the authors, including me. When we did the photo shoot for the cover, for example, we gathered friends around a table in our neighbor’s backyard. We shared a meal and conversation. Those friends have been with me through many joys and sorrows in my life. I know those toes on the cover!”
The team had fun with the creation process. The table of contents is a “Menu” with sections such as “A Moveable Feast” for stories of transition, “Bread of Sorrows” about grief, “A Piece of (Wedding) Cake” for topics of romance and military marriage, and “Check, Please” for careers and finance. The design is akin to a beautiful gift book.
Stories run the full range from practical to humorous, tragic to inspirational. One of Karen’s favorite stories to share with a group of listeners is from a writer new to her with this project, Lori Volkman’s “Marriage Pig Latin.”
“There are so many strong stories,” she says. “Lori’s touched my heart from the first moment and I still choke up when I read it aloud at our events.” Lori writes about her experience in the fifteen months following her Navy husband’s return from deployment. The topic of reintegration is one dear to Karen, who authored an entire book on the subject (Life After Deployment: Military families share reunion stories and advice). “Lori is an amazing storyteller—so honest, true, and poetic,” she says. “Her story resonates with everyone in the room.”
For many of the authors, the opportunity to work together and to meet each other in person has been a dream come true. Sixteen of the coauthors were able to attend a dinner at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, to celebrate the launch of the book. Many of them brought dog-eared books to be signed by the other authors (many meeting in person for the first time), books that had helped them through their first days as military spouses and first deployments.
Since the launch, the coauthors have gotten to know each other through a closed Facebook group, encouraging each other and serving as resources for individual projects. They are active in their communities, leading nonprofit organizations, launching magazines, and advocating for military families in a variety of platforms.
“As the project unfolded and we began to discover the depth of commitment from each person, I kept thinking: If this is what we are all doing individually, just think what we can do together!” says Karen. “This book project has brought many of us together in other projects as well, as we learn about each other’s resources and needs. It’s amazing teamwork and support for one another, all with the goal of serving military families.”
From the beginning, Karen knew a book like this collection had potential to support military families directly through the stories. But she also wanted it to be more than a book. “The book is simply the conversation starter,” she says. “Going back to the first inspiration and the desire to bring folks around a table, I believe the book has the power to create supportive communities, to bring military families and their civilian neighbors together in meaningful ways.”
Her coauthors believe that too and are bringing the book and the experience of sharing stories around the world.
For coauthor Stacy Huisman, this meant putting the book on her own dining room table in Germany. “After moving to Germany with my family, I realized that my life was going to be different,” says Stacy. “I lived in a small village with only a handful of Americans. I didn’t speak the language, didn’t know my way around, and quickly realized I was in danger of being isolated. As the hopeless extrovert, I couldn’t think of anything worse.”
Over the course of a few months, Stacy gradually got to know other women nearby and quietly asked them for their contact information so she could invite them to coffee. Fourteen new friends accepted.
“It was a spread so amazing,” she says. “I laid my coveted copy of Stories Around the Table amidst the plates. The book was passed along, hand to hand, accompanied by a story to share of their own. We all sat around the table chatting about our lives, where we had lived, shared experiences, and reconnected friends. It was AMAZING and it all happened around my table. The book was a conversation starter that day and I will be forever grateful that I was able to share it with them.”
Many coauthors are bringing the book into both military family programs and their civilian communities. Large corporations are sponsoring community events with a Stories Around the Table theme. Some of the key themes include “transitioning veterans–corporate and military culture” (with business leaders, hiring managers, military service members, and spouses around the table), “military family health–stress, change, PTSD, suicide” (with healthcare professionals, counselors, religious leaders, social workers, and military families), and “military-connected students–preschool, grade school, teens” (with teachers, school administrators, coaches, day care providers, and military-connected kids and parents).
“We created what we call the Stories Experience,” says Karen. “We’re bringing people together face-to-face to encourage one another and to bridge understanding, using the book as a conversation starter. We integrate the book into the experience because some important topics are difficult to talk about. Stories Around the Table offers a starting point—someone else’s experience. After the event, readers can come back to the stories they relate to most and continue the conversation.”
While many of the Stories coauthors are professional paid speakers and published authors of other works, none of them receive a royalty from Stories Around the Table. From the project’s inception, the authors all agreed to forgo a royalty so proceeds could instead be shared with a nonprofit that serves military families. The group selected Operation Homefront as its primary nonprofit beneficiary.
“Although our first task was to create a resource we felt would support military families in a personal way, it was also important for us to help those military families who need more than what a book or a table of friends can provide,” says Karen. “Operation Homefront is in a position to reach families in need both geographically and those facing a wide variety of life challenges.”
Tom Greer, vice president of communications and outreach for Operation Homefront, says, “We recognize the importance of storytelling as a way to celebrate what it means to serve and to offer insight for the unique sacrifices military families make every day for all of us. We’re grateful to Elva Resa Publishing and the authors of Stories Around the Table for choosing us as their philanthropic partner, so that we may help more military families with emergency financial and other assistance.”
“As community leaders, we are called to support our military families,” says Karen. “My dream is to see the book used as a catalyst for important conversations in neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, places of worship… The more we listen to and share personal stories, the more we inspire each other and understand each other, and see ways to better support one another.”
“On behalf of my coauthors, we cordially invite you to Stories Around the Table!”
Menu (Table of Contents)
List of Authors
Stories Experience Guide (ideas for bringing a Stories Experience to your community)
Sample Past and Upcoming Events (e.g., Dove Real Beauty Self-Esteem, USAA, Military Spouse of the Year Town Hall, MN National Guard Family Readiness Training)
National Press Club book launch (video by Susan Phalen)
Stories Around the Table is a finalist for Foreword Review’s Indie Fab Book of the Year and a finalist for the Midwest Book Awards Best Anthology.
Photos courtesy of Terri Barnes and Stacy Huisman. Feature photo: Stacy Huisman’s fabulous Stories table at her coffee with new friends.
The Books Make a Difference team loves to discover and write about how books are making a difference in the world. We also love to participate in making a difference! We are honored to be coauthors and supporters of Stories Around the Table.