SCHINNEN, Netherlands -- It's been a year since the Army rolled out a comprehensive program aimed at improving the quality of life for families, but in the tri-border area of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, those benefits now extend to all U.S. military families, not just Army.

Known as the Army Family Covenant, the plan earmarked $ 1.4 billion for Army installations around the world. Over $140k of that amount came to USAG Schinnen, Netherlands during FY08, but because of the joint environment Schinnen serves, those funds are actually helping families from all branches of the U.S. military across three borders.

The Covenant entitles U.S. military families with a deployed member to receive up to four free classes, two free team or individual sport enrollments and up to 16 hours/month of free child care, plus additional discounted rates (space available), starting as early as 30 days before deployment and extending for 60 days after the deployment. The benefits also apply to families of service members who go on extended TDY's for 90 days or more.

"The Army's intent behind Covenant funds was to show appreciation for the sacrifices families have made these past years during multiple deployments and separations," says Farideh Kastens, Schinnen's Coordinator for Child & Youth Services (CYS).

But for installations like Schinnen, which operate in a multi-U.S. forces environment, the Covenant goes one step further. Funds are not limited only to Army families. Covenant regulations actually specify that funds can be used to serve an installation's broader audience of all U.S. military families.

This opened the door for more than just Army families in the tri-border region to benefit from things like free sports activities, free classes, and free or discounted child care if their military member deployed or went on an extended TDY. And it's not merely a one-time good deal. Kastens says there's more funding on the way as deployments and ops tempos increase in FY09.
Emily Nunn, Schinnen's Outreach Services Director already reports an increase in calls from tri-border parents who are either preparing to deploy or are following up after a spouse has deployed. "Families are hearing about these excellent benefits and calling to take advantage," she says.

"If you know you're deploying sometime soon and you hear of CYS classes or sports programs your kids would like to start this fall, then come in and register now, because Covenant funds actually kick in 30 days before a deployment begins. This means you could be taking advantage of those free benefits even now," Nunn says.

Schinnen's FY08 Covenant funds dispersed to a variety of projects, says Kastens. Her CYS customers include military children and families from Kleinebrogel Airbase in Belgium; Geilenkirchen NATO Airbase and Rheindalem NATO Base in Germany; plus Joint Forces Command (NATO), Volkel Airbase, the 598th Trans Group (Rotterdam) and USAG Schinnen in the Netherlands.

CYS used Covenant funds to provide free enrollment for 426 students last year from those varied NATO and U.S. military installations. Those free benefits alone were worth more than $7600, according to staff figures. Free sports programs and classes, including snowboarding, skiing, martial arts, football, soccer and cheerleading, accounted for another $2000 in savings to military families. An additional six families qualified for free or discounted child care.

Covenant funds also helped reward 14 direct care staff at Schinnen's Child Development Center, located at Joint Forces Command in Brunssum, Netherlands. "Some of these staff members have deployed spouses themselves, and yet they were working long hours to meet the child care needs of other deployed families. These incentive payments were a way to say thanks and recognize their hard work," Kastens explains.

CYS used additional Covenant funds to operate a free after-school bus service for middle schoolers and teens travelling from AFNORTH International School in Brunssum to the Youth Services facility at Joint Forces Command. Additional busses shuttle students to the sports fields or CYS off-site classes such as snowboarding and skiing lessons at nearby Snowworld in Landgraff. Thanks to the bus service, Kastens says the number of students participating in CYS's after-school programs jumped in recent months.

Covenant funding also helped secure a short term alternate childcare facility (STACC) for Rotterdam families, which just opened in September. There were at least 30 people in the Rotterdam area eligible for free or discounted child care provided under the Covenant, but because no child development center or equivalent facility existed there, those benefits would've been lost without the STACC.

"The Covenant money really had a strong, positive impact on military families in the tri-border area, and we expect that to continue," says Kastens. "IMCOM-Europe has confirmed that we'll get a continuation of these funds to make sure we can go on with the programs we've put in place."

Besides CYS, one of the main beneficiaries of Covenant funds this past year was Schinnen's Army Community Services (ACS), where the additional money helped secure full manning for the first time in several years. ACS added four staff members who now operate the Exceptional Family Member Program, the Army Family Action Plan/Army Family Team Building Program, Mobilization & Deployment Readiness Program, and Family Advocacy Educator/Sexual Assault Response Coordinator.

"In the past, these programs were managed by contract employees who did a great job but were never able to reach long term goals because contract moneys always ran out," says Helen Gross, Schinnen's ACS Director. "Having professionals permanently onboard now allows the continuity and quality of these important programs to flourish."

ACS services are currently at an all-time high, with more than 14,500 client contacts made in the past six months. That's a 50% increase over the same period last year, notes Gross.
With rotational deployments continuing at Schinnen and Joint Forces Command, plus potential deployments forthcoming at Geilenkirchen, these benefits are something every military family needs to know.

To find out if you're eligible for free classes, sports or child care using Covenant benefits, call Schinnen's Central Enrollment at 0031-455-26-3121. To learn more about what's available for families of deployed or extended TDY service members, contact Schinnen's ACS at 0031-46-443-7218.