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For Armed Services YMCA, November All About Family

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 1, 2004 – It began about two decades ago as part of The Great American Family project.

Then in 1996, the Armed Services YMCA expanded Military Family Week, which occurred around Thanksgiving, into Military Family Month, which begins today.

And just like the week grew into a monthlong celebration, so to Military families have been growing in number and percentage of force, said retired Navy Rear Adm. Frank Gallo, director of the Armed Services YMCA.

"When I came in the service back in the Dark Ages, most of the troops were single. Everybody was single," he said. Now, he added, 65 percent to 70 percent of servicemembers are married, many with children.

This makes the family a big part of the military, and the health of those families is a big part of the readiness of the military, he said.

The ASYMCA, part of the national YMCA, is dedicated to supporting ongoing outreach activities for these families. Unlike the national organization, the Armed Services YMCA, with the exception of the branch at Naval Station Bremerton, Wash., does not have physical fitness facilities. Instead, it provides childcare, counseling, singles centers, airport welcome centers and hospital programs, Gallo said.

As long as it's legal, moral and needed, "there's very little we will not try," he added.

The organization also tries to help ease the financial burden of the families of guardsman and reservists, whose pay often drops when called to active duty. Some companies will make up the difference between a guardsman's or reservist's pay, but many others don't.

"They find themselves strapped," Gallo said. "So we put lots of extra effort into them."

Extra effort also goes into helping junior enlisted servicemembers in the active forces, he said.

Currently Woman's Day magazine has published two of three planned issues that each feature one family as a representative for all military families. The goal is finding support for families like these during the holidays, when it really gets tough and expenses are high, Gallo said.

Military Family Month puts a little extra focus on supporting families. This is especially true since the beginning of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, Gallo said.

Part of what the ASYMCA does to help bases get ready to celebrate Military Family Month comes in a package they prepare and then the individual services mail to bases. The package includes a letter from the president and a letter from the senior enlisted adviser of the particular service. There are also posters to help advertise the month.

The posters are the product of an art contest directly tied to Military Family Month. The annual contest kicks off with family month and ends Feb. 14. Military family members in Grades K-6 from each service, including the Coast Guard, are eligible.

The posters' annual theme is "My Military Family." A winner from each service receives a $500 savings bond; second-place finishers get $100 bonds. Winners' artwork is featured on the Military Family Month poster.

The ASYMCA leaves the decision on what activities to host during the month to its branches and affiliates. When it conducted a poll, the agency discovered that some branches and affiliates have conducted a family walk that ended with cider and donuts, craft night, family movie night and healthy family activities at a health or fitness center. The most important part of the activity is that it focuses on and supports the family.

The Woman's Day contribution also is a successful part of the effort to support families this year, Gallo said, though it is not directly related to Military Family Month.

Proceeds from that magazine's effort are being used for food baskets for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. For example, a food locker at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Wash., just received a $2,500 check from the ASYMCA. That check, Gallo said, will provide food baskets for 84 junior enlisted families.

Also, ASYMCA is working with Gifts in Kind International, a charity group that has a deal with Mattel Inc. By working with Gifts in Kind, and because of that group's deal with Mattell, ASYMCA can provide 600 first-class toys to families for $220. That means, Gallo said, that the organization can help the about 30 family readiness groups that have inquired about assistance for about $6,000.

"This year most of our branches and affiliates have in fact adopted platoons or battalions or whatever, and they are putting a lot of extra effort into this to make this holiday a little bit better," Gallo said.

Most branches look after families first, but they also look out for single servicemembers who might be away from home over the holidays.

One way ASYMCA helps single servicemembers away from home for the holidays is to arrange for them to have Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner with a local family. The servicemembers might fight the idea at first, Gallo said, but they always end up having a good time. Sometimes there are more families offering to serve dinner than there are servicemembers in need of that dinner.

Gallo said the war on terror has brought out the good in a lot of people. "American people are generous to a fault. That's a really good part of what's come out of this war," he said.

The ASYMCA also sponsors programs like "Mommy and Me," which brings parents and children with similar concerns together. Operation Hero is another successful program that helps children experiencing temporary social or academic problems, often because of frequent moves or a parent's deployment.

Military Family Month continues throughout November.

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