FORT SILL, Okla. (Feb. 15, 2018) -- More than 80 volunteers, mostly retirees, work seven days a week to ensure service members and others have a comfortable stay while at the Lawton-Fort Sill Regional Airport.

The Military Welcome Center (MWC) has been in existence nearly six years. It operates about 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Two paid staff oversee the volunteers, make work schedules and navigate the legislation that exists between the MWC and its local partners and financiers: the Armed Services YMCA (ASYMCA) and the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA).

José Colon, volunteer coordinator for the MWC since its inception; and Sheena Towsey, volunteer coordinator just shy of a year, oversee, mentor and schedule the volunteers for their shifts each month. They also oversee the MWC ensuring snacks, water and cleaning supplies are available, plus they handle day-to-day operations. Their positions are paid. Towsey said she averages about 25 hours a week.

The MWC has eight members who sit on a deciding committee that examines and determines future projects, regulations and partnerships. Members from the MWC, ASYMCA and MOAA make up the committee.

The center offers military members -- active, retired and veterans -- a comfortable and clean place to unwind while awaiting their flights or awaiting others to be picked up from their flights. However, the center isn't just reserved for those who have military affiliation. American Airlines and TSA staff, police officers and firefighters and pretty much anyone else, even with none of those affiliations, can use the MWC explained Colon, though the center is more military focused in the activities and entertainment it offers.

Some features include: large leather lounge chairs that recline; a sleeping room; internet-enabled computers; a large, flat screen TV with satellite cable; magazines, newspapers, and books that patrons can read and take; a visitor center with maps, directions and information about the Lawton-Fort Sill community; a luggage storage area; a children's play area with toys, games, and books; snacks, candy, and bottled water.

In 2017, the MWC served 15,071 patrons according to the management staff. On Feb. 13, Towsey hosted her first open-house orientation to promote the center and solicit volunteers. Currently, the MWC has 96 volunteers, but turnover is ongoing due to the age, health and circumstances of some volunteers. Therefore, she said her goal is to host an open-house orientation on the second Tuesday monthly to recruit volunteers.

Carol Herrick, executive director of the ASYMCA, explained the personnel turnover situation at the MWC.

"One of the challenges is that the folks who can work at the Military Welcome Center, a large number of them are retirees," said Herrick, who has been at her job a year. "So sometimes things happen, life changes, (volunteers) want to move closer to their kids, so the attrition happens quite naturally and she's (Sheena) has done an excellent job of backfilling any volunteers."

Herrick said she is not overly involved in the day-to-day management of the MWC.

"My role is to just make sure we have the funding and the resources as well as all the legal documents to protect the organization.

"From a cash budget perspective, depending on if we do the improvements we want to do, it's about $50,000 a year to run the center. But if we had to pay somebody to staff with the volunteer hours, it would be much more than that. So the volunteers really do allow us to meet the mission at a much lower cost. Please note too that (we) absorb a lot of the insurance policies, the personnel costs, a lot of that."

MWC and sponsoring staff members usually organize and host an appreciation dinner or luncheon at least twice a year. Depending upon funding and expenses, staff will host other events around the year, such as dances, parties and socials.

Towsey and Herrick said this all depends upon who is affiliated with the MWC as sponsors.
The annual Volunteer Appreciation Month at Fort Sill in April, is the largest recognizer. "Everything (ultimately) is tracked by ACS (Army Community Service). We're able to recognize our volunteers throughout the year. Sometimes they're hosted by us; sometimes they're hosted by other organizations on our behalf. It's a great partnership," Herrick said.

I think that's our one and two challenges. Just letting folks know that it's available to them and who we are, and how we're working to make sure their travel is easier," Towsey said. "What I love about having the Military Welcome Center under our umbrella is that a lot of times you can meet families as they first come in and they come here they land rough.

"Sometimes their travel plans change and they thought one thing and ended up spending too much on something else. If they fit some of our other programs, like the Soldiers Closet or our Soldiers' comfort funds, the volunteers and the staff at the Military Welcome Center are very versed on what we do in a lot of cases and can refer them to us. So we'll go up to the Military Welcome Center, meet the family where they have the need and take care of them while they're here," Towsey said. "I can think of no better way to exemplify the Oklahoma standard than to work though the Military Welcome Center to take care of families."

The "Fabulous Founding Five" as some MWC, ASYMCA and MOAA staff affectionately refer to them, were the original five founding ladies of the MWC. Those five consisted of Betty Cerrone, Yvette Furtado, Barbara Bullock, Jeanne McKenty, and Rutti Cramer.

Two still volunteer. Cerrone, who stepped down as a committee member, in December 2017, explained how the center came into existence:

"The history behind it came while I was serving as the second president of the local Military Officers Association Auxiliary after the first president, Rutti Cramer, had stepped down from three years in that office, said Cerrone. "My second month in that position Rutti shared with me that some of the members was considering giving up their membership because (they had erroneously been told they weren't doing anything constructively."

Cerrone continued: "At the following month's luncheon we had round table discussions to take suggestions for projects from the membership. Two of the tables, the one Rutti Cramer was sitting at and the one Jeanne McKenty was at, had the idea to set something up at the airport to care for service members. Many of the group's members' husbands had served in Vietnam, and they wanted to do this to honor them and in a way make right the wrongs done to their husbands when they returned home. After the group voted to pursue this idea, a team of ladies met at my home to discuss how to begin this journey and begin making contacts."

After the group voted to pursue this idea a team of ladies met at Cerrone's home to discuss how to begin this journey and begin making contacts.

"The five women who continued throughout the process were Yvette Furtado, Barbara Bullock, Jeanne McKenty, Rutti Cramer and I. The challenges were many. We met with the airport manager who presented the idea to the governing authority of the airport. They have a leasing committee who needed to grant us permission," Cerrone said. "Realizing we needed a little more muscle and realizing the MOAA couldn't take on such a large nonprofit venture, we contacted Bill Vaughan at the ASYMCA who met with us about partnering with us to get us going."

Vaughan then worked with the airport staff and handled all legal aspects.

"Our committee worked with Bill and staff from the ASYMCA; our first letter was sent to McNally in March 2010," said Cerrone. "It wasn't until spring of 2011 we finally were granted permission to go forward with our plans. Then we had to raise $70,000 for construction and our first years' operating expenses."

The committee and the MOAA Auxiliary were responsible for raising this money with the technical and administrative support of the ASYMCA, she said.

"We accomplished our fundraising goal and completed construction to have our grand opening in April 2012," Cerrone said. "We have been blessed over the years with the generosity of time and resources from the Lawton-Fort Sill community to provide volunteers and operating expenses. We have also received a number of grants for specific needs along the way."

Cerrone said overcoming challenges was simply a matter of perseverance and hard work on of everyone involved.