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Director Helps Families, Employees Cope with Howard's End

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

HOWARD AIR FORCE BASE, Canal Zone, Aug. 3, 1999 – Lance Taylor's eyes watered when he talked about the friends he will leave behind and about the hundreds of Panamanians who have turned to him time and again for help. He'll miss them, but more importantly, he's concerned for their welfare once the United States has gone.

"A thousand local nationals work on Howard, and many of them have been here 10 to 15 years. But on Oct. 1, they won't have jobs here," Taylor said. Instead, the Panamanians face the prospect of finding new jobs at one-quarter pay on an economy with a 30 percent unemployment rate.

The director of the base Family Support Center, Taylor has done as much as he can to help them. He hosted what his major command billed as the Air Force's first-ever job fair for foreign national employees. Employees from the Panama Canal Commission and the Army's Fort Clayton also were invited, and more than 2,000 employees and 500 companies ultimately participated.

"Some of them have been lucky and have found good jobs, and some can retire," Taylor said. "But most of them are still looking and competing with each other for whatever jobs are available." He plans to hold another job fair in August, opening a building, and scrounging tables, chairs, computers and whatever else he can to help the employees find jobs.

Taylor's first obligation was, of course, to the airmen and their families stationed here. The center was especially important when the base began to shut down this year, particularly during a rush of moves in mid-spring. With their household goods in transit to new locations, military families turned to the center for loans of towels, irons and ironing boards, dishes and pans and bedding.

"We were down to one pillow," Taylor recalled.

For many spouses of airmen assigned here, leaving Panama meant re-entering the stateside job market. Most couldn't or didn't work while here. Although they were eager to get jobs at their follow-on assignments, they lacked skills or weren't familiar with the job market.

Taylor set up employment workshops covering everything from "dress for success" to essential computer skills. Once airmen had their assignments locked down, family members could learn about their new locations by accessing the Internet for base and community information. The Family Support Center provided Internet access on a bank of computers for those who didn't have computers at work or home.

Now, those computers are stacked in an unused room. Tags mark them for redistribution to Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras, and countless other locations. The desks will go next, in an exodus of equipment matched by reductions of staff that have left Taylor with just three of his original 11 employees.

The schools have closed, too, and Taylor has recruited volunteer students to help out during their summer vacations. They'll be home-schooled this fall until they, too, leave for new assignments with their parents.

Before the Department of Defense Dependents Schools closed, Taylor asked guidance counselors for lists of students and the dates they were leaving. He then sent teams of counselors to the two elementary schools, one middle school and one high school the American kids attended.

"We gathered the kids in small groups and got them to share how they felt about leaving here for new homes," Taylor said. About 1,000 students benefited from the Junior Smooth Move program, including two young boys whose fear of gangs was eased after they talked to the counselors and learned about their new schools and communities on the Internet.

"The kids and parents were grateful for what we provided, as were many of the counselors," Taylor said. One long-time DoDDS counselor told Taylor he'd never thought of implementing such a program before -- and was eager to do so at his next school.

With such a small staff, Taylor can no longer be as creative in providing community services. In truth, the need isn't as great, either, now that most of the families have moved on. He did set up video e-mail for unaccompanied airmen and the few remaining spouses to keep in touch with families and sweethearts back home, and that's been highly popular, he said.

One young wife came in and wanted to send her mother a video e- mail with her dog, because "mom really loves that dog," she said. Taylor was happy to oblige.

Financial counseling grew in importance after the families left and airmen on unaccompanied assignments arrived for duty during Howard's final year. Emergency leaves increased, but first sergeants and commanders have a big "let's take care of our troops" mentality, Taylor said, and will do whatever it takes to handle problems and emergencies that arise.

Taylor leaves Aug. 13, his next job secure at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D. It's his first stateside assignment after stints here, on the Azores at Lajes Field, and at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.

He said he hopes Howard is the only base he ever helps close down.

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