Every day young people raise their right hand and take an oath to serve their country. With that oath comes a lifestyle change that sends them hundreds of miles from home and the support system they had known all their lives.More than just Soldiers, these young people are like anyone else's sons and daughters. The Home Away from Home program was developed to give them a little taste of home while stationed at Fort Riley.Phyllis Fitzgerald, who helped start the program in 2017, said there is a need for host families.
"When a family signs up, the whole family is signing up," she said. "It's a commitment. And I know families, … they have kids and their jobs. So, when a family signs up and they are really committing to be part of that program. The whole family has to be on board."Once the family has decided to move forward with the program, the first step is to fill out an application. On the application, they fill out information about their family, what the dynamics are and what form of entertainment and activities they enjoy.From there, the families are matched with Soldiers. Fitzgerald said there are Soldiers who want to be in the program, but not enough families to partner them up with.One such family is that of Mark Hatcher, the pastor of the Nazarene Church in Junction City. He said he got involved in the program because when they first arrived in Junction City -- he wanted to get involved in the community. He knew it was a military town but he didn't know the dynamics of what that meant.In his quest to learn about his new community he got together with Fitzgerald for lunch.
"We were asking, basically, how can we bless (the) community?" he said. "How can we help the vision of the community? And, this is one thing she mentioned. I latched on to that personally and it was just a great way for my wife to get in on it to get involved with the community. And, learn about the challenges and the joys of military life -- something we had never been around much."Although they have had others in the past, they now have three Soldiers. One is deployed and the other two have gotten married since they first met. That hasn't stopped them from being part of the Home Away From Home program."It's been really nice to get to know their spouses," Hatcher said. "One just had a baby and we got to go over, meet the baby when she was first born and love on him and bring him diapers."He is reaping the benefits that Fitzgerald talks about when she tells people how they get to "interact with these fine young men and women that chose to serve our country."The young men and women often appreciate a place to go away from the barracks and the daily Army life.Hatcher said he simply tries to make them feel loved and encouraged. Many times it is their first time away from home and they find their lives turned upside down."There's a great need (for more host families)," Hatcher said. "These younger soldiers … I think many of them are craving stability. They're craving that family."It doesn't take much time or effort to be a host he said. It can be as easy just inviting them to dinner or to go along with the family on an outing."It doesn't require a lot of time," he said. "It doesn't require a lot of money. They're not asking for anything elaborate -- just have a hamburger with them or include them. If we're having hamburgers, grilling out we say come along with us -- what's another hamburger or two?"The benefits of this program can be far more reaching than just a relationship between the Soldier and a family.Craig Bender, director of the Military Affairs Council, is also a host. By involving a Soldier, even if it is just one, in a family, it gives that young person a sense of community -- a sense of belonging, he said."Across the Army when it comes up and you ask people 'what do you think about Fort Riley?' a lot of times it doesn't get the best response," Bender said. "I think this is going to help build a story of what we have to offer; as well as you're taking care of an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old young man or woman who might (be) away from home for their first time."He has invited his Soldiers to a Super Bowl party and an event where they met Congressmen and other leaders."It's just a good way to make ties for Soldiers on post to show them what Fort Riley has to offer," Bender said. "Especially single Soldiers, a lot of times I think when they come here, they don't know what there is to do. Families always love it (here) but single Soldiers don't. I think they just don't know of things to do and who to talk to."