HARRISBURG, Pa.-- The echoes down the hall carry laughter of small children enjoying much-needed time away from their parents. With eager smiles and a small fort created in the center of the room, the little ones have found refuge in the small hotel ballroom.
These resilient military kids have created a magic world inside their ballroom, while their parents and older siblings enhance their resiliency skills.
With 15 couples and nine families attending, the first Strong Bonds event of the new fiscal year kicked off. Participants, much like their younger children, focused on building better communication skills, and for some building a better foundation for their families.
"I felt that this would be a good opportunity to strengthen our marriage since we're somewhat newly married," said Command Sgt. Maj. Richard Clowser, the division sergeant major for the 78th Training Division, who attended his first Strong Bonds event this past weekend.
"This is an awesome program, with some valuable tools that Soldiers and their spouses can take back home with them and continue to work on," said the Harleysville, Pennsylvania native. "It's not just like, 'hey here's a presentation,' there's actually a tool kit that's easy to understand and follow. If you actually put the things into practice you can strengthen your relationship."
Focusing on strengthening the Army Family, the Strong Bonds program amplifies the individual Soldier and their family members' readiness through a retreat format, allowing Soldiers to train while spending time with their families.
"One of the biggest things that Soldiers face with deployments, even [Battle Assembly] weekends, is that you're away from your spouse, or your family," said Clowser. "But coming to events like this gives the spouses an opportunity to learn a little bit more about what we do, and how much we actually do care about them when we're not there. It gives them some tools to help communicate those things when you're going to be away."
In order to ensure success of the Strong Bonds program, the 99th Readiness Division has cultivated a unique staff made up of volunteers from across the division, which includes Army Civilians, spouses and other family members.
"We want families to be together, we want examples of families working together, and that's something we even build in to the structure or fabric of the program itself," said Chaplain (Maj.) Tim Elliott, the 99th Readiness Division training and resources chaplain.
"For instance, we might have somebody helping with finance whose wife may be helping as one of the class helpers or you may have somebody on staff whose kids are helping in one of the classes," explained the Lexington, Kentucky native. "The families actually see families working together so it's a way of encouraging what we want."
This blended family-style retreat isn't limited to families and couples, it stretches out to single Soldiers as well. The program likes to enhance the individual resiliency as well as family resiliency.
"What we're trying to give people tools to accomplish is to have better relationships across the board," said Elliott. "We're teaching them about relationships, healthy relationships, not necessarily marriage relationships, but just relationships. How do they get along with people around them? How can they become a better individual and build better relationships at work and school or personally."
The biggest struggle for the Strong Bonds program is getting Soldiers to come to these events. To combat this issue, Elliott's team researches best places to host events as well publishing schedules well in advance for Soldiers to be able to participate.
"There are some great locations, it's some awesome training, the instructors are very knowledgeable and caring, they make sure they get the point across," said Clowser. "We all say we don't have time; there are training events that take us away from our family. This is an opportunity to come and do something great with your family."
Working on resilience is one of the U.S. Army's core foci as of late for all Soldiers. The Strong Bonds program is one of many programs that have been designed to help Soldiers enhance their own resiliency skills.
"In order to fight and survive on the battle field, they need to not have to worry about what's going on with their families. Family issues can really tear a Soldier down." said Clowser. "So having a stronger relationship, being able to communicate better, is all part of that total Soldier. This program is called Strong Bonds, so you're building strength, you're strengthening your family, you're strengthening your own resilience. That's what we need Soldiers to do."