By Lesley AtkinsonDecember 1, 2016
FORT LEE, Va. (Dec. 1, 2016) -- "To be in the company of other military families; to get that hug, and a smile -- it makes a huge difference."
That's how Stephanie Parker, Army Community Service officer, summed up the significance of the ACS sixth annual Military Family Appreciation Night at the Regimental Community Center Nov. 17.
Centered on the theme, "Military Families Are Out Of This World," the free dinner was open to all military, active and retired.
"It was good to see some of the retiree community at the dinner," said Parker. "They are able to mentor our young families and share stories of their travels and experiences. The dinner brings the entire cross section of the military together."
Every year, ACS tries to include a community partner, and this year it was the Appomattox Regional Governor's School from Petersburg. Its choir entertained and spoke with families during the dinner.
"The students in the choir were blown away with meeting 80 military families at the dinner," said Parker. "It gave them an opportunity to better understand the rigorous schedule of military family life -- what they go through with not being able to stay at one home or attend one school."
Parker reflected on how the appreciation night dinner began and how it has grown each year.
"Before I arrived at Fort Lee in 2010, I worked at Fort Monmouth, N.J. During that time, the BRAC was coming and the base was due to close," she said. "There was a lot of anxiety with the families. I lived on the installation and never got to see my neighbors. I just handled day-to-day life. I came up with a creative idea of having a dinner for the military families. That one night meant so much for so many. They could relax, not cook dinner, meet people they lived beside for months and did not have time to talk to."
When Parker arrived at Fort Lee, she proposed the dinner idea as a way to celebrate the November observance of Military Family Appreciation Month.
"I pitched the idea and nothing had been done like it before," she said. "First year out the gate, we had maybe 200 participants. So, each year it has been building and this year we had 333 people who we served. We have reached capacity at the Regimental Community Center."
In years prior, ACS has had vendors come in and provide a picture of their services like spa packages to the families. For the past two years, they have had information tables, much like ACS has for their birthday celebration in July.
"My goal is to have at least one family event quarterly, either stand alone or tied to a national observance," she noted. "There is a need that goes beyond just providing a free meal. You're not only feeding their bodies or physical presence, but also nourishing their mental and spiritual well-being. To hear words of encouragement is all someone needs."