We had the good fortune of connecting with Gina Elise and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Gina, what was your thought process behind starting your own business?
I founded Pin-Ups For Vets after graduating from UCLA. I was a theater major in college and was always interested in performance and costuming. I also had a background in dance. After college, I had taken a sales job at a hotel in Los Angeles. At this time, it was around 2006, there were many stories coming out in the news about our troops coming back from Iraq who were needing medical care for traumatic brain injuries, severe burns, and amputations. I felt like I wanted to do something to help, but I didn’t know how. I am an “action” person. I can’t just sit back when I feel like something can be done to improve a situation. I had been a fan of WWII pin-up nose art, that was used to boost morale for the troops during WWII. My grandfather served in the Army Air Force during this time. I thought that I could use the concept of the WWII era pin-up to raise money for our troops and Veterans today. That’s how Pin-Ups For Vets was born. I created that first 1940’s style pin-up fundraiser calendar in 2006, with the goal of raising money that could be donated to a local Veterans hospital to support the influx of injured Veterans entering the hospital from the Iraq War.
I learned to balance my time for both of my roles. I performed my hotel manager duties in my professional business suits and then would later change into my 1940’s fashions and rolled hairdos to carry out the activities of my newly-formed Veterans project. I was living a double life. My colleagues at work did not know about what I did after-hours as the founder of Pin-Ups For Vets. During the early years of the project, I was the only model in the calendar and traveled to hospitals on my own to boost morale and deliver the calendar gifts to hospitalized Veterans. Slowly, the project began to attract the attention of female Veterans who wanted to volunteer with the organization and also join me on the hospital visits. We started to make volunteering glamorous as our team of 1940’s-style volunteer Ambassadors traveled with me on hospital visits around the country and to Veteran events. Four years after founding Pin-Ups For Vets, I made the decision to leave my job in the hotel industry and to focus full time on expanding the organization.
Can you give our readers an introduction to your business? Maybe you can share a bit about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
Our nonprofit is unique because we serve the military and Veteran community in so many different ways. Our calendars feature today’s female Veterans as the 1940’s-style models. Pin-Ups For Vets does everything from donating rehabilitation equipment to Veterans Hospitals across the country, to a 50-state VA Hospital tour where our Pin-Ups For Vets volunteer Ambassadors (many of whom are female Vets) personally deliver our calendars as gifts of appreciation to the ill or injured Veteran patients—and we do this while dressed as 1940s pin-ups! To date, we have visited over 15,000 Veterans at VA Hospitals, Military Hospitals, and State Veterans Homes across the U.S. It is always quite a surprise for the patients to find out that many of the visiting ladies, who enter the hospital rooms all dolled up as “a blast from the past,” are also Veterans of the Armed Forces! Many of our own Pin-Ups For Vets Ambassadors, who are female Veterans, say that utilizing the aesthetic of the WWII pin-up has helped them to reclaim their femininity post-service. They have also mentioned that continuing to support and give back to their brothers and sisters in arms, after separating from military service, has given them a renewed sense of purpose. One of our Ambassadors, Marine Corps Veteran Jovane Marie, expressed her feelings about volunteering with our organization. She said, “I came for the service. I stayed for the sisterhood.” These ladies have come together for a shared cause—to give back to their fellow Veterans—and this shared purpose has created a sisterhood of support that is valuable and empowering for them.
The calendar images are starting a conversation about women in the military. People see the images and they want to know the stories behind the ladies. “Who is she?” “Where did she serve?” “What did she do in the military?” The stories of our lady Veterans need to be told. The ladies often tell me that people assume they are not military Veterans because of their gender. One of our Ambassadors who is a Marine says, “There is nothing that says I can’t be a hard-charging a Marine, and a lipstick-wearing pin-up, so I choose to be both.” These ladies are changing the narrative of what it means to be a Veteran. They are breaking the stereotype!
The organization has donated thousands of dollars to help purchase rehabilitation equipment for hospital therapy departments serving Veterans and also to provide financial assistance for Veterans’ healthcare program expansion across the U.S. On our 50-state VA and Military hospital tour, our volunteer Ambassadors are honored to deliver our calendars as gifts of appreciation to hospitalized Veterans. Many of the Veterans we visit do not have friends or family nearby, so the visits can be the difference between a good and bad day for the patients. We often hear from the Veteran patients, during our visits, “You just made my day!” or “When you are here, my pain is gone.” We have also visited overseas with our Wounded Warriors at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. In addition, we have made visits to our service members at 24 military bases in the U.S., to deliver our calendar gifts of appreciation.
We ship morale-boosting care packages to troops deployed around the globe, work with Homeless Veterans Shelters, and also do morale-boosting pin-up makeovers for female Veterans and military wives to show our appreciation to them for the sacrifices they have made. There have been 10 American flags presented to us, that were flown over military bases and during missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, to honor the work that we do for the Military and Veteran community.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
There are so many incredible spots in the city, but I would say my favorite is the beach. I love to catch a beautiful sunny day in Santa Monica. Beach walks are my favorite, and perhaps lunch at Tocaya Organica, Urth Cafe, Cafe Gratitude, Jinya or True Food Kitchen! Renting bikes in Venice and taking the bike path up to Will Rogers Beach is delightful. I’m also a fan of The Strand in Manhattan Beach. It’s a totally different vibe than Santa Monica, but it’s also great for beach strolls. As far as mid-City, I love the Original Farmers Market at the Grove! There are so many types of foods to try! I’m a huge comedy fan, so I would definitely take someone to see a show at Laugh Factory, Comedy Store, Improv or Groundlings. I also can’t wait to see shows again at the Ahmanson and Taper downtown LA! My degree from UCLA is in theater history. I have a huge appreciation for the arts and try to support when I can.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I would like to dedicate this Shoutout to our brave Veterans and Troops; those who have stepped up to serve our country. I have worked with the Veteran and Military community for nearly 16 years now, and I am constantly inspired by the resilience, courage, teamwork, work ethic, sacrifice, compassion and leadership I see within this particular community. It has been the honor of my life to get to work with our Nation’s Heroes on a regular basis.
Calendar photos by Shane Karns Photography
Nominate Someone: ShoutoutSocal is built on recommendations and shoutouts from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you or someone you know deserves recognition please let us know here.