Our Small Business Snapshot series features photos that represent, in just one image, what the small businesses we feature are all about. Gina Elise, founder and CEO of 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization Pin-Ups for Vets, explains how this image represents her business.
Pin-Ups for Vets, located in Southern California, has been supporting the veteran and military community for over a decade. Each year since its inception, our organization has produced a WWII-style pin-up calendar that raises the needed funding that has allowed us to purchase new rehab equipment for VA and military hospitals across the U.S. We then deliver the calendars as gifts of appreciation to over 10,000 hospitalized Veterans nationwide on our "50-State VA Hospital Tour." We also ship care packages to the U.S. troops deployed around the world, and host morale-boosting events that include days of pampering and make-overs for homeless veterans in shelters and military spouses.
In 2006, just after graduating from UCLA, I was working as a manager in the Los Angeles hospitality industry when I began seeing stories about the large influx of ill and injured veterans coming back from the war in Iraq. Seeing the faces of these young men and women who were dealing with severe burns, traumatic brain injuries, amputations and post-traumatic stress, I knew I had to try to do something to help my peers who had stepped up to serve our country. Moreover, I wanted to help the aging veterans, who often lay in hospital beds for weeks, not receiving any visitors. My own grandfather, Lou, was a proud WWII Veteran who had served in the U.S. Army Air Corps, and I wanted to do something to honor his service.
I'm a big fan the classic aesthetic of the '40s era, like the liberty-rolled hairdos and stylish clothing, and I was inspired by the popularity of the 1940s pin-up girls like Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth, whose pin-up images boosted morale for the U.S. troops fighting overseas. I decided to reintroduce the pin-up calendar in the 21st century, as a vehicle to raise the funds needed to help support veterans and troops.
In the first six years of the fundraiser calendar project, with few resources, I donned wigs to pose as a blonde, brunette, redhead and raven-haired pin-up girl. I found clothing and shoe companies that would let me borrow beautiful retro-style outfits for the photo shoots. In 2013 and 2014, the calendars featured a few TV celebrities, and after that, veterans started to contact me to ask if they could appear in the pin-up fundraiser calendar. I left my hotel manager job to focus full-time on the nonprofit.
This photo is the cover of our upcoming 2017 fundraiser calendar. It will feature 25 U.S. veterans who have served multiple tours of duty, and have traded in their uniforms to pose as our 1940s-style pin-up calendar models. These Pin-Ups for Vets ambassadors are once again finding purpose in their lives by visiting with their ill and injured military brothers and sisters, as they join us on our VA hospital visits to bring smiles, conversation and gifts of appreciation to their fellow veterans.
The calendar is the centerpiece of our nonprofit organization because it allows us to continue our mission of improving the quality of life for hospitalized veterans and deployed troops. Today’s troops, just like in WWII, have hung up the calendars to help remember those back home and to give them something else to think about in dangerous war settings. The calendars have also contributed to an increase in volunteerism in VA hospitals by showing young women that they can dress-up and have fun, while simultaneously serving our nation's hospitalized heroes.
Because we do not receive big foundation grants like other 501(c)(3) charities, we must fundraise 24/7. We sell our annual calendar in our online store at PinUpsForVets.com and offer other items to supplement our fundraising efforts. We have just collaborated with a new hair care line, Beauty & Pin-Ups, and now have a hairspray product, Valor, the proceeds of which go back to our nonprofit.
With seven-day workweeks being the norm, we work hard, but the rewards over this past decade have been priceless. I love to quote Winston Churchill, who said, "We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give." And what a life we have made in giving back to others!
Edited by Nicole Fallon Taylor.