Month of the Military Child: Teens have impact on future Army policies
April 10, 2009
MONS, Belgium - The Army is a machine made up of many parts run by the highest officials in Washington. Funding a program takes an act of Congress; deploying Soldiers, an act of the President. But at the U.S. Army Garrison Benelux, a 13-year-old boy is influencing decision makers on issues that could impact the Department of Defense.
Xavier Reynolds is a seventh-grader at SHAPE American High School. His dad is a Soldier who works for NATO, and his mom is a civilian employee and avid volunteer. He's just a typical kid who likes junk food and cracking jokes, but as a participant of the Army Family Action Plan, he is potentially helping change America's military.
"I thought I wouldn't be able to help, but I did," he said, following a day-long meeting with a dozen other students. "I helped think of a problem around the community that could help better the adults and kids."
The teens worked in one of 13 workgroups that came together throughout the Benelux over the past 12 months to identify issues that concern military communities.
Volunteers in the workgroups walked into a room surrounded by some probable strangers not knowing quite what to expect.
"I thought it would be mainly adults," said Joanna McLaren, a senior at SHAPE American High School and member of the ChiAfA..vres Garrison youth workgroup. "I thought I would just be a representative, but it ended up being a committee of youth. I was surprised we were being given a voice."
A long table filled the room and was scattered with thick binders, a dictionary and a thesaurus, hinting that the delegates were in for some serious business. But along with the official materials was a curious mix of novelty items like beanbags and other toys, which broke the tension later in the day.
After an hour-long introduction to AFAP and learning the basic guidelines for how the workgroup would operate, they got started. Cell phones were off, and volunteers were ready to cooperate with each other and to tolerate different ideas. It was time for the group facilitator to present the list of issues.
Throughout the year, issues were submitted and collected from around the community, and now it was the job of the delegates to add their ideas to the list and to prioritize the issues that had the broadest impact.
Would they choose to focus on the limited restaurant options, adding decoder boxes to the fitness center, compensation for heating oil or maybe adding technology to the schools'
The priorities varied based on the makeup of the workgroups, which were made up of teens, Single Soldiers and adults in the community. The teens geared their selections toward areas that concerned them, while the single Soldier workgroup focused on military-related issues that had an impact on re-enlistments and family stability.
But prioritizing the issues was only the beginning. Now each group had to write up the definition or scope of the issue and describe how it impacts Army families, while also recommending solutions to fix the perceived problems.
"We all gave our ideas how to better our own community," said Heather Wagner, a member of the ChiAfA..vres Garrison October workgroup.
"It reminds me of a mini-Congress," she added. "We're submitting our bills to get approved."
The ideas they generated could potentially make it to Congress.
USAG Schinnen proposed an issue in 2006 that is currently a critical active force support issue at the DA level. Schinnen delegates recommended creating a Table of Distribution and Allowance position for the president of each garrison's Better Opportunity for Single Soldiers program.
According to DA's Issue Update Book last updated in February 2008, coordination is underway to support 40 military BOSS President positions at the Army's largest installations.
But, before anything makes it up the long road to Capitol Hill, each garrison reviews the issues. At ChiAfA..vres, two teens, a Soldier, an Airman and a military spouse addressed Lt. Col. Brian England and other community members.
"We think recreation facilities would create stronger families, and by creating stronger families, we would create a stronger community," McLaren told the audience, as she introduced her group's issue about limited recreation facilities at SHAPE and ChiAfA..vres.
"There should be enough kids-to-teachers so that kids get the individual attention that they need," Airman 1st Class Stephanie Berg told the crowd after recommending reducing the student-to-teacher ratio for Kindergartners.
From the issues that were prioritized, the garrison's AFAP steering committees decided which ones to address at the local level and which ones to forward to IMCOM-Europe.
"Quality of life-that's what we do in AFAP," said Comel Rooms, the USAG Benelux AFAP coordinator. "AFAP has been doing Army Family Covenant before Army Family Covenant has even been around."
In 2005, an AFAP issue addressed the lack of Navy and Marine uniforms at the post exchange and substandard military housing. By addressing and resolving the issues, ChiAfA..vres Garrison met the Army Family Covenant goals of "providing Soldiers and Families a Quality of Life commensurate with their service" and "improving Soldier and family housing."
And, these are just two examples of many. In the past year, the USAG Benelux placed priority on 29 issues out of the 136 that were submitted by members of the community.
In the past 25 years, AFAP has addressed more than 600 issues, and rooms said it's estimated that 90 percent are handled on a local level, and 61 percent of the issues are applicable throughout the Department of Defense.
While the workgroup volunteers probably won't see the results of their efforts, as they'll relocate before changes are implemented, they said they didn't do it for themselves.
McLaren, who has six brothers and sisters said she's looking out for her siblings. "My brother Colin is 9," she said. "Maybe someday it will affect him."
Wagner, who has a daughter in Kindergarten, said she hopes their issue to reduce the student-to-teacher ratio will benefit future Kindergartners.
"This is important," said England. "Look at the laundry list. At least one of those issues affects every person here. I'll look at every single one of them.
USAG Benelux AFAP continues to hold workgroups quarterly and welcomes input from everyone, even teenagers like Reynolds.
"I recommend anybody that wants to change the community to come participate because they can help make the community better," he said.