By Lt. Col. Chester C. Carter, III
BLACKSTONE, Va. -- The Virginia National Guard Family Program delivers a wide range of services to military families here in the Commonwealth. Like the Virginia National Guard, the family program is community based and is designed to support all military families in Virginia regardless of the branch or component of the service member.
The Virginia National Guard Family Program has two main objectives. One objective is to support a network of Family Assistance Centers located throughout Virginia. The other objective is to assist Virginia National Guard units to maintain and sustain Family Readiness Groups.
The family assistance program is designed to provide an outreach to service families in areas that are not served by active component installations. It is the “primary entry point for service and assistance that any family member may need during the deployment process.” When the family of a service member lives in Roanoke or the New River Valley traveling to an active component installation to obtain support can take a three hour drive. Knowing where to turn for help with the variety of problems that can face a family when a member is deployed overseas can be daunting. That family can turn to a Virginia National Guard family program center for assistance from a large number of support programs available in the community.
The ten Virginia National Guard family assistance centers are on call “24 – 7” and have a full time staff available to support families by providing them with a single point of contact to gain information about the wide range of agencies that are prepared and willing to support military families in the local community. While the people working in the family assistance centers are not counselors they do have a great deal of knowledge about support programs and know how the get a family in need the appropriate support necessary to aid in resolving the many problems confronting them. During the last 12 months the family assistance center staff has handled over 4,000 requests for assistance.
The family readiness group program is oriented toward maintaining unit readiness and supporting family members of deployed Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen. Each unit of the Virginia National Guard has a family readiness group. The family readiness group works with the unit commander to ensure Guard families are made to feel as much as part of the Guard as the Soldiers and Airmen do. Unlike the family assistance center program that is staffed by a full time cadre, the family readiness groups are staffed almost exclusively by volunteers. The focus of these family readiness groups are their respective Virginia Guard units whereas the primary focal point for the family assistance centers is an outreach to military family members without regard to branch of service or component.
The most recent family program training activities provide insight of how and what direction the program is evolving into. In late March the program sponsored the Virginia National Guard Youth Team Building Retreat. In early April family readiness group volunteers from across Virginia received training on a wide range of topics to necessary to successfully operate a unit level family readiness group program.
The Virginia National Guard partnered with American Legion Post 74 in Charlottesville and the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States to conduct the Virginia National Guard Youth Team Building Retreat March 25 and 26. During the retreat 45 National Guard family youngsters gathered in Charlottesville to share experiences. The intent of the retreat was to provide the youngsters with a variety of education, life skill, and team building activities over the two day retreat.
Col. Kimberly Dillon, who has overall responsibility for Virginia National Guard family support programs, said the youth retreat is designed to recognize the youth for the sacrifices they make in support of their parent’s military commitment with the Guard. Dillon said that in addition to the activities the youth participate in during a retreat such as this; they can also participate in leadership programs which are conducted across the country and educational camps such as the Lewis and Clark Expedition Camp being held in North Dakota.
Dillon said the “activities are designed to educate, inform, build life skills, make new friends, and most importantly have fun!” She said the Virginia National Guard has one program designed to meet the needs of Guard youngsters from age 8 through 12 and from another to meet the needs of young people from age 13 through 18 years old.
Mr. M. C. “Connie” Agresti, Deputy Chief of Staff for the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Military Assistance Program Committee, or MAP Committee, said the Virginia National Guard youth retreat was a “natural fit’ for his committee. He said his committee is a VFW outreach designed to support the families of deployed service members. The committee provided $800 to support the youth retreat program.
Agresti noted the Guard and reserves do not have programs like the Army Community Service or other similar programs so the VFW works “to fill the void” by helping families with everyday finances, home repairs, rent, utilities, and even coordination with local attorneys for legal assistance. He said the VFW provided over $2.8 million for scholarships nationwide and more than $50 thousand in Virginia alone.
Agresti said the VFW is looking to reach out to Guard family readiness groups during pre-deployment activities as well as while the Soldiers and Airmen are gone and following their return to assist with job placement or VA claims. He said that Guard and reserve personnel and families may contact the VFW MAP through any of the 180 VFW Posts in Virginia, on-line via America Support You or www.vfw.org, or through dedicated MAP coordinators located in the Tidewater area, Northern Virginia, Western Virginia, and central Virginia.
In addition to partnering with the American Legion and VFW, the Virginia National Guard also worked with National Guard Bureau to provide program specialists to work with the youth in by providing team building and live skills training. The specialists, Sandra VanDerPol and Tennille Stranger, provided learning experiences for the youth specifically targeted to their age group and included topics such as flag etiquette, adapting to change, stress management, financial management, and leadership.
Both VanDerPol and Stranger come from Guard families. VanDerPol’s husband is a first sergeant in the Iowa Army Guard and deployed in support of Desert Storm as well as Operation Iraqi Freedom. Stranger’s husband is an Active Guard and Reserve Soldier with the Arkansas Army Guard and also deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Both are educators and certainly experienced the impact of extended mobilizations on their immediate families. Their skills as educators and experience of having to deal with the trauma of mobilization on their families uniquely qualified them as program specialist for this program.
VanDerPol said her program is modeled along the same line as the Army Family Team Building program but she shared thoughts similar to those expressed by Agresti of the VFW. Guard families normally do not live close to a military installation and because the families are community based they have special needs. Programs must reach out to the families of our Soldiers and Airmen and the outreach must take place in the communities where they live. The infrastructure that is provided on a military installation that is designed to take care of the service member’s family simply does not exist out in our communities.
The Virginia National Guard Family Program will continue to expand in an attempt to meet the needs of our families and support the readiness of our Army and Air Guard units. In addition to family readiness group training and youth retreats the program will also support marriage enrichment seminars and other activities centered around strengthening the tie between families and the Virginia National Guard.
For more information about Guard Family Action Plans and Guard Family Team Building log on to www.gfap.org, www.gftb.org, or www.guardfamily.org. For more information about the Veterans of Foreign Wars Military Assistance Program log on to www.vfwva.org. For more information on the Virginia National Guard Family Program log on to www.virginiaguard.com and “click” on “Family/Youth Programs.”