Julie Curtis-Win: A Heart as Big as Texas
By Casie Vinall
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jul. 11, 2003 It was the first time Julie Curtis-Win and her father had done something together in a long time. Both avid gardeners, they signed up for Texas A&M's Horticulture Master Gardener class.
What began in 1997 as family time turned into a volunteer commitment of Texas- sized proportions that would lead Curtis-Win to forge close ties with her local military community.
The gardening course required 50 hours of community service. Through the Adopt- a-School program, Curtis-Win partnered with the Army's 62nd Engineer Battalion, 13th Corps Support Command, from Fort Hood, Texas.
Their initial project was a huge success. Volunteer civilians and service members set up an outdoor classroom for a local school with a science lab, pond, apple trees, greenhouse, and herb, vegetable and butterfly gardens.
Logging in at over 3,000 volunteer hours a year, Curtis-Win was just getting started.
"It was because of this partnership, I came to understand the military, the life of the soldiers and the struggles of some of their families," she said. "These soldiers taught our community that not only could they perform the tasks of being a soldier, carry guns, drive tanks and keep us safe, but they could plant flowers and build greenhouses and be a part of our community."
When the volunteer work ran late, Curtis-Win ensured the troops were fed. "It was not uncommon for my husband to come home from work and find soldiers on our porch eating pizza," she said, "because I knew that they had missed the mess hall meal, and we always felt that if they were helping us they would not go back to base with an empty stomach."
Curtis-Win watched the troops and the kids became even closer after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"After 9/11, it was comforting to our children to see the soldiers at the schools," Curtis-Win said. "Quite often, there would be a child that was having difficulty understanding 9/11 and soldiers would visit with them and tell them it was not their place to worry but the soldiers were there to make sure they were safe. It helped a lot of children sleep better at night."
The joint projects continued, and the volunteers built a greenhouse at Bonham Middle School in 2002. This time, 85 middle school students joined the team. Curtis-Win estimates 8,000 hours went into completing the building. After interacting with the school children during the project, she said, five soldiers decided they would like to become teachers.
The projects were in full swing when, in early January, Curtis-Win received a call notifying her that the 62nd Engineer Battalion would be deployed in a week.
"Well, needless to say, I really felt like I was loosing 400-plus children," she recalled. "Most of the soldiers that I have worked with are my son's age or younger."
Curtis-Win showed up at the unit's pre-deployment site with more than 600 cookies. "It was the saddest event I have ever been part of," she said. "Watching all those soldiers and their families say goodbye is burned into my memory."
When Curtis-Win passed out food and other items to the soldiers, she recalls that they asked how much they needed to pay her for the products.
"It actually upset me to think that they thought they would have to pay for this little gesture of kindness," she said. "This is why the following week, I started soliciting my community to put together a meal for 2,000 soldiers that I knew would be leaving from 13th COSCOM."
In only four days, Curtis-Win collected all the necessary materials, with the exception of one crucial item. Texas A&M University Medical School's Health Science Center donated the missing ingredient -- 2,000 bags of potato chips.
"That afternoon, when I returned home, I turned the corner and the Lay's Potato Chip truck was in front of my house," she said. "Half my porch was covered with boxes of potato chips, and the Texas A&M University administrator was standing in the front yard counting potato chip boxes and holding a check for $1,480."
Curtis-Win continued attending the deployment ceremonies, sending off more than 20,000 soldiers. Before the soldiers left, she said she let them make last- minute phone calls on her cell phone, totaling 58 pages worth of phone bills.
During the deployments, members of what is now the Texas Military Family Foundation repeatedly contacted Curtis-Win to come on board. She declined because she was so busy with her volunteer projects. After learning more about the foundation, however, she decided to get involved.
Curtis-Win now serves as executive director of the Texas Military Family Foundation, an organization dedicated to making the lives of military members and their families easier. With a secretary by her side, Curtis-Win and the foundation's only other paid employee "work 24 hours when it is required," she said. But they are not going it alone.
Volunteers from Austin, Dallas, Houston and the rest of the central Texas area help the foundation. Also, the foundation works in conjunction with other aid groups, such as the Red Cross, USO, and the Salvation Army. The Salvation Army and foundation recently teamed up to buy a custom chair for a deployed soldier's family member with cerebral palsy.
Together with Bell County C.A.R.E., a faith-based initiative, the foundation provides free childcare to family members of deployed reserve members and National Guardsmen on Tuesdays. From its inception, the program "assist(s) anywhere from 3 to 4 up to 20 to 25 families a week," she said. "What a great opportunity for the churches to open their doors and their hearts."
During a particularly bad bout of storms in February 2003, reserve members activated at Fort Hood were stuck in transient billets for three days. Curtis- Win realized the troops needed something more on-site to occupy their time in the future, especially since some of these troops had already spent three months there.
"I understood that this was a place for reserve and guard to come and train which they had done but the waiting was really getting to them," she said. So, the foundation brought in pool, foosball, air hockey, and ping-pong tables, and installed phones and set up hair and laundry facilities.
"I have never seen a recreation center go up so fast," she stated. "This brought tears to the soldiers' eyes."
The foundation has held barbecue dinners for troops, serving 125 apple pies in one night. Aided by Campfire Girls and Cub Scouts, the foundation also held Coke float night.
"The interaction between the soldiers and the children was wonderful. It was a little city overnight. Little did I know but there were over 4,000 soldiers out there," she recalled.
Curtis-Win said a 9-year-old girl from Troy, Texas, arranged personal care packages in sacks, each with a note she had written. The girl raised money to cover the shipping costs and sent four boxes with the help of the Red Cross.
Curtis-Win's job continues even after the troops return safely. Since some of the returning reservists do not have jobs to come back to. She said the foundation arranged for the Texas Workforce Commission to come to the base. That way, the paperwork process can be started before the troops "are deactivated and leave the base," she said.
"Our association has grown out of our hearts into the lives of so many soldiers and their families," Curtis-Win said. "A happy soldier makes a happy home, and a happy home makes a happy soldier. To help improve or enhance systems already in place is just the right thing to do."