California girl Gina Elise, the creator and face of Pin-Ups for Vets, talks the 1940’s pin-up aesthetic, fundraising and volunteering at VA hospitals, her late Grandpa Lou, appreciation from the troops, and more.
Interview: Divertida Devotchka. Photos: Mark Menchaca
When you first created the Pin-Ups for Vets pin up calendar, your purpose was threefold: to sell calendars to raise money for hospitalized veterans, to deliver the purchased calendars to actual ill/injured vets with messages from the donors, and to send calendars to deployed troops to help boost morale. When exactly did you start this project? Can you tell us about the process of creating your organization?
It was 2006, two years after I graduated from UCLA, and there were many news stories coming out about VA hospitals that were underfunded, overcrowded, and struggling to properly care for the big influx of patients. The number of patients was increasing due to the aging Veteran population and also the Veterans coming back from the combat zone. I really wanted to do something to help out. Our Veterans sacrifice so much for this country, and I think that they should be getting the best possible medical care. I’d always been a big fan of the pin-up culture, and I adore the art of the famous pin-up artists such as Vargas and Elvgren. I decided to create a pin-up calendar that would raise funds to support these VA and Military hospitals across the USA to try to improve their healthcare programs. The first calendar released was the 2007 edition, and the rest is history! $50,000 donated to VA hospitals across the U.S. and six “Pin-Ups For Vets calendars produced to date! It was definitely struggle to get the organization off the ground, as it is with any start-up. I created a website and started sending the website link to the Milblogging community (Military Bloggers). They welcomed the project immediately and started reposting the website link and asked me to do interviews about the organization. I also started to appear at live events such as car and air shows that always attract pin-up fans! It has definitely been a grass-roots effort to spread the word. My first supporters started sending the website to their friends and family. They also started donating calendars so I could ship them to deployed units. And after a while, I started getting a lot of e-mail requests from deployed units for these calendars. They became popular with our deployed service members who have requested them year after year. Supporters of Pin-Ups For Vets now collect the calendars, and many of them pride themselves on having the entire set! There is so much thought and production that goes into making the calendars; they are more like art pieces. I try to remain true to the aesthetic of the 1940s pinups; classy and glamorous, but with a girl-next-door quality.
You had some very personal inspiration for starting this project, right? Your late Grandpa Lou served in the U.S. Army for 4 years during World War II, and the 1940’s retro pin-up seemed a fitting aesthetic for the project. Can you tell us a little about Lou and his service?
My grandfather was a pharmacist for the Army. He was in charge of the Army pharmacy on his military base and did such a good job that he received a letter of commendation from his superiors who recommended that he attend Officers Candidate School. He was always very proud of his military service. He would take my mother to the cemetery on Memorial Day so she would understand about the sacrifices made by his comrades. I still have his military dog tags. I am inspired by the medical care that my grandfather gave to Soldiers almost 70 years ago during WWII, and I feel that I’ve been able to take that torch and carry it on into this generation to help our current hospitalized Veterans.
Since starting Pin-Ups for Vets, you’ve received a remarkable amount of recognition for your work. In 2007 you were named “Outstanding Young Californian,” in 2008 you received the “Daily Points of Light” award from Washington D.C., and in 2009 you were named “Volunteer of the Year” by the Los Angeles Business Journal as a part of their annual Women Making a Difference ceremony. Not only that, but you’ve also collected 9 certificates of appreciation so far and 8 American flags that were flown by our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Do you find yourself surprised by the extent of the gratitude of the vets and/or the community for the work you’ve been doing? Did you ever expect that the project would grow into what it is today?
You know, I did not expect that Pin-Ups For Vets would have become my life. I created this fundraiser calendar thinking it was only going to be a one-year project. Towards the end of the first year, I started getting e-mails asking me when the next calendar was going to come out, so I created a second calendar and the project grew, little by little, with the passing of each year. It is quite an honor to have received these awards. I was very humbled by them, as I feel that I am not doing anything extraordinary–it is our service members that should be getting the recognition. They are the ones that put their lives on the line to protect our freedoms. I am just doing my part to support them.
As a more personal type of recognition, you have also received hundreds of letters from troops in Afghanistan and Iraq telling you about their experiences overseas. I can imagine that you’ve heard all kinds of stories, from the uplifting to the downright horrifying. Can you share a few personal anecdotes that have been shared with you by the deployed troops?
In general, the e-mails I get from deployed service members show so much appreciation for the simple fact that people on the homefront are thinking of them. They want to know that we are behind them, that we support them, and that we have not forgotten about them. I just received this a few days ago: “Dear Gina, We are currently stationed in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. We received your calendars a few days ago, and I personally wanted to thank you on behalf of those in the shop, for not only bringing up our morale, but also giving me, along with several others, assurance knowing that there are still proud Americans back at home that love and support us for what we do.”
I understand that the proceeds from this project are donated to military and V.A. hospitals throughout the country to help with costs of healthcare programs. You’re also an advocate of volunteering at V.A. hospitals to assist our vets firsthand in their recovery. Any advice on how one can get started with volunteering?
Absolutely. It is as easy as contacting the Volunteer Services office of your local Veterans Hospital to inquire about how you can give back. The offices are always so happy to get new volunteers.
You’ve made a point to personally deliver gifts to hospitalized veterans at V.A. hospitals all over the country, as well as working with other non-profit groups to send care packages to deployed troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. We do cater to the pin-up crowd, so do you have any insight on what steps a gal should take if she wants to send pin-up goodies to deployed troops?
I would say to start by asking friends and family if they have any loved ones deployed and ask them if you would be able to send some care packages to the war zone.
What’s next for Pin-Ups for Vets?
I am right in the middle of a 50-state hospital tour. It is my goal to visit at least one VA or Military hospital in every state in the U.S. to boost morale of our Veterans across America! I have 31 states to go! If there is anyone reading this that would be interested in sponsoring a trip for me to their local VA Hospital, please contact me through the website http://www.pinupsforvets.com . I just hope to continue to give back and support our brave heroes for as long as I can. There is a quote I love, “You make a living by what you get, but you make a life by what you give.”
Anything you’d like to add?
I have many deployed units requesting calendars for the holidays. And I’m also planning some hospital visits in the near future. If you visit the website to purchase a calendar for yourself, please consider donating one as well for a hospitalized Vet or deployed service member. These gifts of appreciation will put some BIG smiles on the faces of our Nation’s heroes!