Michelle 'Chelle' McIntyre-Brewer cried the day the White House called to inform her she was the recipient of the nation's second-highest civilian award, but her tears were not those of joy. Earlier in the day, she had lost one of the ill children with whom she was working. "No award could take the pain of that moment from me," she says.
While deeply appreciative of the honor, McIntyre-Brewer says, "The matters of daily life seem inconsequential when one's day is filled with children fighting for their lives ... Every child I've lost on my personal journey is truly the recipient of this award; not me. I just do the facilitating. They do the fighting."
President Obama presented the 2011 Presidential Citizens Medal on Oct. 20 to McIntyre-Brewer and 12 other honorees, who were selected from among nearly 6,000 nominations. The Jefferson, Md., resident was recognized "for ensuring we uphold our obligations to those who defend our freedom," according to her official White House citation. Established in 1969, the Citizens Medal "recognizes American citizens who have performed exemplary deeds of service for their country or their fellow citizens."
Her experiences as the daughter of a 33-year Air Force veteran and the wife of an Army captain—coupled with losing a child, raising a daughter who is missing half of her heart and adopting an ill son from China—have led McIntyre-Brewer to focus her life's mission on two key areas: supporting military families and advocating for the medical needs of children.
Supporting Military Families
As founder of Soldier's List, a support organization for service members and their families, McIntyre-Brewer juggles about 40 cases per week while home-schooling her three children, ages 10, 6 and 4. The Susquehanna University English major might, at any given moment, be found arranging care for a seriously ill child, helping to facilitate an international adoption, or providing assistance to a soldier wounded in combat.
Soldier's List was founded in 2003, in response to the wars in the Middle East. The organization began as a way for people to connect with deployed military members and show their support. Over time, Soldier's List evolved to support high-risk service members and their families facing such hardships as lack of family support, marital issues and the acute special needs of spouses and children. To this end, McIntyre-Brewer has worked diligently with the military community to educate families about their rights and responsibilities under Tricare, the health plan serving active-duty military members, and other available services.
Advocating for Special-Needs Children
Part and parcel to the work she does with Soldier's List, McIntyre-Brewer advocates for children with special needs, in particular orphans. "You have to understand, some of these guys, especially Guards and Reserves, have (civilian) jobs that are completely different from their military occupational specialty," she explains.
"I get calls from 'downrange'—Qatar, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Kosovo, Korea, you name it—regarding children that these 'weekend warriors' (trained surgeons, doctors and medical technicians) suspect of having congenital issues that need to be resolved or the children will die. The Armed Forces are not equipped nor ordered to handle these kiddos unless there was direct impact during a U.S. mission or imminent life stakes. So they get in touch with me. ... I, in good conscience, could never just offer my help to one group of people. If someone needs my help and I can help, they will get it."
An Unrivaled Education
Of her national recognition, McIntyre-Brewer says, "I don't really do my work thinking of accolades or honors. I do my work because I've seen what happens when no one is there to advocate for a ... family."
She does, however, extend the honor to the Susquehanna community. "I received an unrivaled education at Susquehanna University," she says. "The caliber of studies, the depth of analysis, the opportunities for expansion—they were all available to me. I've attended other universities and never felt the closeness that I felt, and continue to feel, for Susquehanna. I can confidently say that I've sparred debates with Harvard, Yale and Oxford graduates and held my own. When they ask about my alma mater, their blank expressions—indicating they'd never heard of Susquehanna University—gave way to genuine looks of interest about this hidden gem of a university."