With a degree in music therapy from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Elizabeth Mackey embarked on her career as a music therapist at the St. Cloud, Minn., U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center (now known as the St. Cloud VA Health Care System) in 1985.
“Music was so effective in patients diagnosed with dementia and brain injury and was a way to elicit verbal and physical responses from even the most severely affected veterans,” Mackey said.
Shortly into her time with the VA, Mackey found herself intrigued after learning of a program known as “The Music Festival.” The festival offered veterans the opportunity to showcase their talents in a stage show at Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall. After witnessing firsthand just how much of a life-changing experience the event was for veterans, Mackey made it her mission to help more veterans enter the competition.
“Many veterans participate in some form of creative arts, but perhaps have limited opportunity to share their work with others,” Mackey said. “Some veterans have said it was the first time in their lives that they received recognition for their involvement in the creative arts.”
In 1989, the event became better known as the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival (NVCAF). In 1992, the St. Cloud facility was asked to host the festival the following year, where Mackey served as the host site coordinator.
A short time later, in 1994, she served as chairperson of the visual arts division and was called upon to serve as the NVCAF advisor for a two-year period.
“That turned into a permanent role, and somewhere around the year 2000 the title was changed to NVCAF director,” Mackey said.
In addition to her NVCAF role, Mackey also remained in her music therapy position in St. Cloud until 2003. She said NVCAF isn’t about who’s better than the other — it’s about providing a safe way to express emotions and experiences that are difficult to talk about.
“Our hope is that veterans who participate in the competition and Festival come away with a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of strong motivation to explore other areas in their lives where they can achieve that same feeling of success,” Mackey said.
ALA National President Diane Duscheck has been working with Mackey since the 2015 NVCAF, held in Milwaukee. She said Mackey works all year, from the end of one festival to the beginning of another, to ensure its success.
“She is involved in a hands-on way with the Festival, making her presence known to both staff and veteran attendees,” said Duscheck. “She wants each veteran to have a good experience at NVCAF.”
Mackey said some of her best memories can be attributed to the American Legion Auxiliary. She belongs to American Legion Auxiliary Unit 428 in Waite Park, Minn.
“I especially appreciate the fact that some of the ALA national presidents have chosen the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival as their special [emphasis] project, which has created more awareness and involvement through the years,” Mackey said.
After working with NVCAF for more than 30 years, Mackey made the decision to step down as director of the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival in May and transition into retirement.
While she plans on spending more time on interests she’s put on hold and sharing more time with family, she’s not completely stepping away from NVCAF.
Mackey plans on registering as a volunteer with the St. Cloud VA, working on the archives of the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, which are stored at that VA facility.
“The competition and Festival have grown so much over the past 30-plus years, and it’s been exciting to have been a part of that growth,” Mackey said. “I look forward to seeing how the program further evolves in the future to benefit veterans and recognize them for their creative achievements.”
Established in 1984, the ALA Woman of the Year Award recognizes outstanding women who exemplify the values and ideals of the American Legion Auxiliary, particularly those whose contributions advance the quality of life for America’s military, veterans, and their families. Past Woman of the Year honorees include former Assistant Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs Tammy L. Duckworth, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Army Wife Talk Radio host Tara Crooks, and R.Riveter Co-Founders Cameron Cruse and Lisa Bradley.
Established in 1984, the American Legion Auxiliary Woman of the Year Award recognizes outstanding women who exemplify the values and ideals of the American Legion Auxiliary, particularly those women whose contributions advance the quality of life for America’s military, veterans, and their families. Past Woman of the Year honorees include former Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Tammy L. Duckworth, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Army Wife Talk Radio Host Tara Crooks, Patriot PAWS Founder Lori Stevens, and U.S. Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson. To learn more about the Woman of the Year Award and the American Legion Auxiliary, visit www.ALAforVeterans.org.
Established in 1984, the Woman of the Year Award recognizes outstanding women who exemplify the values and ideals of the American Legion Auxiliary, particularly those whose contributions advance the quality of life for America’s military, veterans, and their families. Criteria & Selection
*Given as the "Lifetime Achievement Award"
American Legion Auxiliary National Headquarters