FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Nicole Walcott’s lip started to quiver as she turned her misty gaze away from a reporter’s question. “I don’t want to cry on camera,” the 33-year-old said when asked why she’s fought tooth and nail to keep her small business open amid a pandemic that’s crushing countless others.
Three years ago, Walcott, a U.S. Army veteran, opened an alternative health and wellness center in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a short drive from Fort Bragg, one of the largest military installations on the planet.
It was going well, but then COVID-19 hit — a phrase that has defined the stories of so many small businesses in 2020. In fact, it's only because of nonprofits such as San Antonio, Texas-based Operation Homefront — and Walcott's determination to seek out every grant possible — that her business is still around.
Walcott's alternative health and wellness center isn't just her livelihood — it's personal. A Humvee accident while she was serving in South Korea left Walcott with a spinal cord injury and debilitating chronic pain. When traditional pain management plans didn’t suit her, she tried flotation therapy and says the pain disappeared after her first session.
Walcott couldn’t find an alternative wellness center to continue her treatment in Fayetteville, so the mother of two worked with a private investor to open one herself.
She put in 16-hour days to build her business and it was paying off.
“We were having our best year ever in 2019. We were booked all day, every day. We were open seven days a week,” she said.
The pandemic changed everything.
In March, the state of North Carolina forced Walcott’s doors to close. They stayed shut for three months.
“When the revenue dropped 95%, we didn’t know what we were going to do,” she told The Associated Press.
But while the Wellness Center sat dormant on downtown Fayetteville’s main drag, Walcott did not. She dug in her heels and started researching financial assistance to support her business and her family. Her husband, an Army veteran himself and Fayetteville police officer, began working the night shift to help with the kids during the day as Walcott hovered over her laptop searching for lifelines.
“I literally took those 16 hours and I completely switched to finding every piece of knowledge I could about grants,” she said.
At the same time, the nonprofit Operation Homefront began to see their requests for assistance skyrocket. The nonprofit helps military families facing financial hardships with things like rent, utilities and food assistance.
It’s sometimes the small expenses that retired Brig. Gen. John Pray, who serves as Operation Homefront’s president and CEO, says can upend a family’s life. He said it is a “national tragedy” that the country has been unable to properly support veterans in civilian life.
“They may be one car repair or repair or missed rent or mortgage payment away from a series of financial disasters that derail any hope of a brighter future,” he said.
Pray has watched the COVID-19 pandemic hit military families especially hard. Since mid-March, his organization has received nearly 3,000 requests for financial assistance. And they’ve filled nearly half of them.
One of those requests was Nicole’s. Walcott’s business serves as her home’s primary income and when business dried up, so did most of her family’s livelihood.
“Many military families are two-wage earner incomes,” Pray said. “And when one wage earner like Nicole, they lose their job, all of a sudden that puts tremendous financial strain on the families.”
Operation Homefront has shelled out $802,000 to families struggling amid the pandemic, all while receiving fewer donations. Pray says donors in the restaurant and travel industry have cut back as their own revenues dropped. But others have stepped up to fill the void.
The organization has already started setting aside cash for the influx of requests they expect to see in the coming months as the virus surges again.
They are bracing for a potentially massive need for mortgage and rent assistance as government moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures begin to run out.
“We want to be the organization that says ‘Yes,’ not the organization that says ‘We’re out of money,’” Pray said.
Walcott was able to reopen in late May. Since then, business has been hit or miss. They’ve slimmed down staff and dropped certain services but that’s not what she says saved her business.
“If we hadn’t found a lot of the grants that I found, we probably wouldn’t be here today,” Walcott said.
Out of more than 50 grant applications Walcott has submitted, she’s received 10. When an organization says no, she applies again.
She’s refusing to take no for an answer. It’s a skill she picked in Army: keep pushing through, especially when things get uncomfortable.
“I just knew that my vision for the company was so much bigger and it didn’t stop with something like COVID,” she said. “It had to go on.”