Women’s History Month – Desiree Douglas
Desiree Douglas has only been on the planet for 55 years, but she has done enough good to last multiple lifetimes. Desiree is a multilingual Air Force Veteran and mother of four who has multiple sclerosis. She’s been in a wheelchair for the last eight years and has lived at Maximum Accessible Housing of Ohio’s Pine Tree Vistas since 2012. Although less mobile than she used to be, Desiree is still extremely active in her church and Veteran community.
Air Force Service
Desiree graduated high school with a cosmetology license, but, she explained, she was too shy at age 17 to work in cosmetology. Desiree’s mother, who was busy looking after a family of ten children, suggested she join the military. Desiree took her advice and set out to join the Navy. Soon, however, she learned that training for the Navy included a 25 foot jump into a pool. She changed direction and joined the United States Air Force in 1978.
The next six years took Desiree all around the world, from Scott Air Force Base in Illinois to Italy and everywhere in between. Her first job was briefing officers and other high-ranking Air Force officials when she was just 18 years old! Desiree remembered her first brief, “I stood up with my teacher on my right side and saw all the officers at the table and passed out.” But, that was the first and last time she would. Desiree held many different positions in the Air Force, including being part of the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), where she sat behind a console and interpreted enemy signals. After six years in the Air Force, Desiree wanted to have children, so she retired from her rank as Staff Sergeant (E-5).
A Life-Changing Diagnosis
Four years later, Desiree had two children and was a very active community member. “I was very athletic,” she explained, “I swam a mile a day for years.” At 28 years old, Desiree was doing Taekwondo when she fell and went numb from the waist down. She knew that wasn’t normal and found herself at the hospital, undergoing a battery of tests. Soon, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS).
Since her diagnosis, Desiree has still been able to have a large impact on both her family and the community. Desiree had two more children after her diagnosis and continued to work and homeschool her children for seventeen years. However, things weren’t perfect. For Desiree, having MS meant different episodes of changes to her body, some of which came and went without notice. For example, at age 42, Desiree lost sight in her right eye, only to regain it a short time after. Other complications, however, came to stay. At age 45, Desiree lost feeling in her feet and had to stop driving because she couldn’t tell how much pressure she was putting on the pedals of the car. Desiree had been using a cane, but at age 47, her neurologist advised she start using a wheelchair, which she has been using ever since.
Desiree was diagnosed before the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 became law. When she was first diagnosed, she worked at a hospital and was told by her supervisor, “Once this MS starts inhibiting your ability to work, we have to let you go.” At the time, Desiree was a young mother and didn’t know what she would do. Luckily, the ADA became law not too long after her diagnosis and she and her husband were able to care for their family.
Then, in 2009, Desiree explained, her husband said goodbye to her and their four children and left the house, telling them he was going to do errands. Instead, her husband left the family and took his own life because, she believes, he was unable to cope with her disability. With his death, Desiree and her youngest children had to figure out how to support themselves as her children finished high school.
Refugees, Veterans, and More Help to be given
Now, Desiree has stable housing at Pine Tree Vistas and her children are grown and successful. Her youngest daughter, Caroline, even graduated from high school with a 4.87 GPA, thanks to Desiree’s commitment to her children’s education through homeschooling. But her impact reaches far beyond that.
Desiree is multilingual and has used her ability to help countless Bosnian and Serbian refugees. She spent time teaching Serbian refugees English with her oldest daughter, Bonnie-joy. Desiree would teach the adults, and Bonnie-joy would teach the children. In another program, Desiree worked with 40 different Bosnian families and helped them acclimate to life in the United States. Weekly, she would go to the food pantry and help feed these families, as well as helping with other needs, like going to the doctor.
As a veteran, Desiree has been instrumental in helping newly-disabled veterans through the transition from the hospital back to their lives. With the Buckeye Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, she visits and talks with veterans weekly in the hopes of making the transition a little gentler. Desiree explained that there’s no way for the transition to be easy, but stress can be lessened with support.
The Buckeye Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of American shows newly-disabled veterans community resources, doorways to accommodations, and helps point them where they can go for assistance. But, it’s not serious all the time: they play games with the veterans, too, and even have the opportunity to do some accessibility audits in the community. Although Desiree has numerous complications from her own disability, she explained, “Vets are vital and with whatever strength I have I want to show them how they can contribute.”
Desiree has two other accomplishments she’s quite proud of:
- She an award-winning artist. And although she now lacks the dexterity to make art like she used to, she hopes to begin making art again soon.
- She’s on her prayer and worship team at church. She explained, “I’ve lived a full life, and I’m grateful to God for all blessings he has passed my way. He orders my steps day by day and I hope the same for everyone else.”
“Just a Girl”
We asked Desiree how being a woman has impacted her work and life. She explained that she has never felt like she missed out on anything and has never felt negatively affected by being a woman. Life can be challenging, and for Desiree Douglas, it’s been just that. But, it’s also been a full and impactful life. Obviously, we were impressed, and when we told Desiree, she answered simply, “I’m just me. I’m just a girl.”
And what a girl she is. She’s traveled the world, raised four successful children, bettered the lives of countless refugees, and eased the transition for Veterans with disabilities. She’s made art, she’s interpreted enemy signals, and she’s endured suffering and come out on the other end with her head held high, still interested in helping others.