Catrina Zielinski stayed home this Veterans Day. After 14 years in the Marines, Zielinski could have gotten recognition for her service, or could have gone out and gotten a nominal discount at a restaurant.
“Applebee’s is the big one — Applebee’s gives a meal,” Zielinski said. “But I had my mom and my son. I can’t afford to take them out. So it was, ‘OK, do I go get a free meal and eat in front of them? Or do we not go?’ So we didn’t go.”
Zielinski is frustrated with how things have gone for her. Myriad injuries — cysts in her eye and both maxillary sinuses, bulging discs in her lower back, herniated discs in her neck, two foot surgeries, two shoulder surgeries — left her unfit for service four years ago.
“Otherwise I’d be going on 19 years,” she said, “retiring soon.”
Instead she’s waiting until her son, Leroy, 4, heads to kindergarten next fall to seek a full-time job. Her spouse, whose name she asked not be given, recently got a job with a local manufacturer.
They’ve been getting by with the help of Marion County Resource Center and Food Bank, where Zielinski and those in need from all over Marion County get food and assistance every other week.
She picks up food Thursdays, but she also goes to the food bank on Mondays to volunteer.
“I still need the help, but there’s no reason for me not to go help somebody else,” she said.
Zielinski said it feels good to volunteer. Mondays are her free day because Leroy is at preschool during that time. Otherwise, she spends her days taking care of him.
She admitted giving help to others is a much different feeling than using the food bank to receive help.
“The first time I went in, it’s kind of a degrading feeling,” she said. “But it’s there for you to get help, and you’re thankful for it. Then you go and you volunteer, and you get thanked for it. I kind of see both sides.”
For Zielinski, the Marine Corps was a stable source of income and a way of life. Aside from 22 days between graduating from Marion High School and leaving for Marine boot camp in South Carolina, she had never been without stability and direction.
Now Leroy gives her direction by inspiring her to get through tough times.
“When I was little, back when they had the paper book with the food stamps in it, my mom was always on food stamps,” she said. “I always told myself, ‘I’ll never do that to my kids. I’ll never do that to my kids.’”
Yet she found herself applying for food stamps, which have since become known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, after leaving the military. Between checks she and her husband received from U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, they were $77 over the monthly income limit for benefits.
Zielinski has mixed feelings on government aid programs, saying they need to be more strictly regulated.
“It’s just frustrating watching the people I know are on food stamps that don’t necessarily need to be — that have more than I do — after serving my country for 14 years,” she said. “I see people that get state assistance and work under the table and have yard ornaments for the holidays, and I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
She found a silver lining, though — getting denied SNAP benefits has helped her keep her promise to herself.
“That was my sign that it’s all gonna be OK,” she said. “Don’t worry about it.”
Zielinski said she does not go to church, but she believes in God and prays constantly. Leroy does, too.
Perhaps it was God, then, that led her to notice new signage on the building at 1220 E. Main St., where the food bank recently relocated. Zielinski said the food bank isn’t meant as a place to get all grocery needs, but to supplement regular trips. It allows her to know she’ll be able to get Leroy healthy, basic foods that children need to grow.
“Because the crap is cheaper,” she said. “So when you have a small amount to go shopping, I know I don’t have to stress about those expensive things.”
The food bank provides help for people in various situations.
“Some of them are on food stamps, some of them aren’t. Some have family help out with other, little things that they need, and some don’t,” Zielinski said.
But food bank users have a similar mentality overall, Zielinski said: If you don’t need it, don’t take it. Especially in a small community, Zielinski said, people know others may need something they merely want.
Zielinski’s Marine background gives her multiple perspectives on the situation. On one hand, she feels her experience and her service should be enough for her to not depend on help to get by. On the other, she was taught in the Marines “to adapt and overcome” her circumstances.
“And if it gets better, then you adapt to that, too,” she said.
As someone who grew up in Marion County, Zielinski isn’t surprised that the effort was put in to provide such a vital community resource.
“The community, whether you think it’s good or whether you think it’s bad, they always come together when it’s needed,” she said. “It’s all going to work out, and until then I know there’s a place that I can go if I need help.”