Veterans at the Milwaukee Veteran Affairs Medical Center constantly ask Jessica Ullberg, a junior at Waterford Union High School, when she will be bringing in her homemade chocolate chip cookies. Ullberg’s gifts of bakery and service earned her the title of “cookie girl” at the VA Center, where she has been volunteering since age 13.

Jessica Ullberg, 16, a member of St. Peter Parish, East Troy, displays the award she received from the Milwaukee Veteran Affairs Medical Center, Jan. 19, for her hundreds of hours of service to the VA’s Adult Day Health Care veterans. (Submitted photo courtesy Annette Ullberg)

The VA Center recently awarded the now 16-year-old for her 800+ hours of service, including 368 this past year, with the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drum Major Gold Award.

Another Catholic, Cindy Rogers, a member of St. Peter Parish, Slinger, received the same award for her service to the VA as an operating room nurse and her more than 400 hours of volunteering to her local VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars), church and other community organizations.

Before Ullberg turned 13, she counted down the days until she could volunteer at the VA Center.

“My mom is a veteran. I grew up with a bunch of veterans in my life. I just wanted to help serve them too,” she said.

Jessica found out about the VA Center’s volunteer opportunity through her mother Annette, who works for the VA as a surgical nurse. Annette wasn’t surprised at her daughter’s interest in volunteering at the VA. She was always the child who wanted to give a little extra for those in need without wanting any recognition, Annette recalled.

Jessica volunteers in Adult Day Health Care at the VA, working on her days off from school and every weekday throughout the summer. During her vacation months, she works 35 hours a week, cooking with the VA staff, assisting with music groups and building relationships with the veterans at the VA.[su_pullquote align=”right”]Name: Jessica Ullberg
Age: 16 Profession: Student, Waterford Union High School
Parish: St. Peter Parish, East Troy
Hobbies: Cheer and dance
Favorite subject: French
Favorite music genre: Oldies (Disco, Bon Jovi)
Role model: My mother
Favorite food: Pizza and ice cream
Favorite church song: “Amazing Grace” [/su_pullquote]

“The veterans consider me like family. They’re super protective of me,” Jessica said. “Same with the workers – they consider me their VA daughter.”

And the relationships Jessica has built with the veterans strengthened her passion for service and compassion for others.

“I’ve learned what they’ve been through, what sacrifice really is. And I’ve learned just how lucky I am to be living in a free country,” she said.

The high schooler’s humility is a testament to her desire to help people. A parishioner at St. Peter Parish in East Troy, Jessica said her volunteering at the VA Center has strengthened her vocation to serve.

“I’ve seen some pretty amazing things happen from volunteering, and I know God is with me there. I think that God had that as my calling,” she said.

Jessica hopes to be a nurse like her mother one day. Though she is still unsure of what she wants to specialize in, she is confident she will work for the VA Center. Volunteering has given her a sense of professionalism where, as she said, “you can’t act like a kid” and a sense of loyalty to the veterans.

“The more I work with them, the more I learn about them, the more I want to continue to know more about them and volunteer with them and help them. It makes me want to help more,” she said.

Her work at the VA has prepared her for a career in nursing, said Jessica.

“Nursing isn’t all that glorious, but I find it rewarding,” she said.

Annette said her daughter possesses the qualities needed in nursing.

“She has that compassion. She has that calling,” Annette said.

Jessica’s calling surpasses just her work at the VA. The high schooler’s attitude toward helping others is in everything she does. Recently, Jessica organized a food drive in her neighborhood. She went door-to-door to more than 500 houses in a snowstorm, collecting nonperishable food for the local food pantry. She also organized a sock and underwear drive for the VA, collecting more than 500 pairs of socks and underwear – so much that she had to make three trips from the car to the volunteer office.

“I like to see the reward at the end, and I like to see the people’s faces when someone does something nice for them,” she said about her passion for helping others

Though she serves without seeking recognition, she is grateful for the award from the VA Center. She received a certificate signed by former President Barack Obama and a plaque with her name.

“It felt amazing to be recognized,” Jessica said. “It felt like my work that I put in was actually making an impact on people’s lives.”

While Jessica has touched so many lives at a young age, the veterans have also impacted her life. In her time at the VA, she has become a “granddaughter” to many, learning their stories, good and bad.

She called the relationships she’s building with the veterans, the most rewarding thing she has experienced.

“I could get the veterans to warm up to me. They’ve been through so much, and when they first met me, they opened up to me. They trusted me right away. It was a key to my faith,” she said.

Jessica’s faith is also central to the Ullberg family.

“It is very important, the most important thing,” Annette said. “It just helps people through tough times, good times, bad times, all the time.”

As a mother, veteran and nurse, Annette is proud of what her daughter has done and what she hopes to do in her future. She hopes she can inspire others to do the same.

“I think we all need to do our part in helping. If everyone helps, it makes it easier to help those in needs,” she said. “She is a role model to others.”