ARLINGTON, Va. - When Chief Warrant Officer 2 Sean Durkee, a Soldier with the Massachusetts Army National Guard, was deployed to Afghanistan in the winter of 2013, successive snowstorms inundated his hometown of Waltham.
Nearby family and friends were beset by challenges caused by the record amount of snowfall that year and couldn't keep up with helping clear the snow at the deployed Soldier's home.
His sister, Kelly Dupree-Erwin, turned to social media for help. That's when Mark Johnson, who owned a small snow plowing business in the area, responded and had a team clear the snow following each snowstorm for the rest of that winter. According to Dupree-Erwin, Johnson's team plowed her brother's driveway, cleared his sidewalk and even the stairs to the front door so the mail could get delivered.
"I know that this seems like a small thing, but to me having a small business owner willing to forgo his profits and manpower to help one family over and over in their time of need is outstanding," Kelly wrote in an essay she submitted nominating Johnson, who was bestowed with the 2015 Blue Star Families Neighbor of Year award in a recent gala here.
Stories similar to this, multiplied thousands of times, are examples of how people from some 4,500 organizations around the country have helped military members and their families, according to officials overseeing family support programs at the National Guard Bureau.
"There are a multitude of groups that are out there, profit and non-profit, supporting military families," said Anthony A. Wickham, the Joint Programs chief at the NGB.
Family support programs for the Guard started about 10 years ago, according to Wickham. At the onset, gaps in servicing needs were identified. In time, officials were able to tell where to fill the gaps to get service members and their families the support that they needed, whether it be in finding a job or a behavioral health specialist locally, or knowing what their education benefits are or augmenting those education benefits.
Tamra A. De Benedetto, Army Guard Family Services Program manager, attributes the rise of community support for Guard members and their families, to changes in the perspective of both the general community and the military.
"Society is much more accepting of behavioral, mental health issues that need assistance," she said, "which I think has helped in accessibility and a willingness to come forward and say, ‘I need help.'
De Benedetto noted the increase in family support services from government and civilian entities.
"Twelve years ago we didn't have Family Assistance Centers. Ten years ago we didn't have Family Readiness Support Assistance staff. We have those resources now. Ten years ago we didn't have Military One Source. So those are resources that are available and accessible to our families that we now have. Because of 11 plus years of war, the needs have increased vastly as well," she said.
The Air National Guard counts on its Airmen and Family Readiness program manager who is part of the overall state Family Readiness System to assist Airmen and their families, according to Maj. Kelly Barton, Airman and Family Services branch chief at the ANG Readiness Center on Andrews Air Force Base.
"They are there to support service members and their families. Not only do they offer information and referral to local and state partners and agencies - they do hands on services. They are trained Personal Financial Specialists, they have certificates in Employment and Transition Services, they provide the wings with Deployment Cycle Support, and aid in creating a more resilient and ready force," she said.
Active-duty installations provide a lot of support to the people that are within their catchment area. But for many Guard members, finding that help may be more difficult because of their geographic location, Wickham noted.
Support from the community for Guard families has focused primarily on wellness, which covers behavioral and medical health; education, and employment.
"Most of these not-for-profits or outside organizations have specialties in those areas," Wickham said. "For instance, Blue Star Families may focus on different areas to include behavioral health. Give-An-Hour is strictly a behavioral health outreach. USO provides assistance to our service members when they're deployed or on annual training… There are so many of them."
According to Wickham, about 4,500 organizations have some kind of military affiliation or provide support military family members in some shape or form.
"So what we try to do is link with them and see what they have to offer, and then get that information to the 54 states and territories so that they can use those assets when they need them," he said.
Dwindling resources have pushed officials to find an easier way to link service members with the community-based support, giving rise to an initiative called Joining Community Forces, said Darla L. Siegel, Outreach Program Specialist for JCF at NGB.
"JCF was developed because of the draw down (of forces)," she said. "Because we may be losing staffing and manpower in the future, who's going to take care of these service members?"
Right now, Siegel said, available staff is assigned to find ways to create these local networks of support in local communities.
"The beauty of the National Guard is that we have 54 states and territories out there that are working on this at the state level," Wickham said. "So I've got 54 little laboratories on how to best leverage that community support that's out there."
While the focus is on the local level, tying in with national organizations works to fill in possible gaps, according to Wickham.
He said part of his office's task is to also look for opportunities for national organizations to connect with each other. The recent Blue Star Families Neighbor award event was one of those functions, he said.
It's a continuing conversation, Wickham said, to provide the states new information and receive the states' response "to let us know what worked well or what didn't, or if they needed more help in a particular subject matter or resource."
From that conversation, Wickham's office then engages the non-profit community or the community at large to see if there's somebody that could fill that gap, then link them with that state point of contact who usually is the state family program directors or airman and family program managers. Most states have now placed somebody in their joint family programs to coordinate that support at their level, he added.
State FACs, serve as a primary resource and referral for the Guard to somebody within the local community. The FACs focus on building relationships with community partners and organizations so they have resources within the local community or neighborhood.
"The goal is to connect locally, within the community. At times, depending on where you live and depending on what's available, it may be that they end up getting you a national connection. But most of the time the goal is to give you something within your own community," De Benedetto said.
Marshaling federal resources along with the community partners saw a good measure of success in maximizing support to Guard families, officials said. However, under the current draw down of forces, there are new challenges that the family support programs are beginning to confront.
(FAC and A&FRPM locations, emails and phone numbers can be found on the Joint service Support Web Site at: https://www.jointservicessupport.org/ResourceFinder/SearchResource.aspx)
First of a two-part series