COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado – Around 1,000 freshly commissioned Air Force second lieutenants will commemorate their graduation from the U.S. Air Force Academy during an April 18 ceremony that will, for the first time, include no on-site audience of family, friends or community members.Across Colorado Springs, however, several 100th Missile Defense Brigade Soldiers will be tuned in to the live stream of the commencement to watch the young men and women they have welcomed into their families collect their diplomas and toss their hats high in the air. The COVID-19 pandemic may have altered how the class of 2020 will remember its last semester at the Academy, but perhaps a more indelible mark on many cadets will have been left by cadet sponsor families.“By the end of the four years we typically tell them, ‘We love you,’ and they will often respond in kind,” said U.S. Army Maj. William Smith, deputy missile defense crew director with the 100th Missile Defense Brigade, headquartered in Colorado Springs. He and his wife, Marie, have been sponsoring USAFA cadets since 2008.Cadets come from across the nation, and often their families live far from campus. The Cadet Sponsor Program is designed to pair cadets with local families to give them a home away from school, said Dean Mills, chief of the Commandant of Cadets’ support branch.“That’s element number one that we talk to sponsor families about,” Mills said. “Having a place to go, away from the Academy, to relax and unwind can give our cadets a nice break from a demanding routine.”Cadet 1st Class James Barney from Sedro-Woolley, Washington, defined that routine as rigorous, starting with the rising sun and often ending in darkness.“A typical day starts with a 6:30 a.m. formation,” Barney said. “Then we go to classes, have another formation, march to lunch, and attend more classes in the afternoon. We have room inspections in the middle of the day and on the weekend sometimes. We still have homework of your typical Ivy League college and activities on top of it.“It meant so much to be able to get away,” he said. “I didn’t have to live in my dorm room on the weekends. I got to go back home, relax, and do whatever I felt like doing.”For Barney, that home was the residence of Timothy and U.S. Army Master Sgt. Sandra Dudley.Dudley said a longtime friend contacted her to ask if she would sponsor her son during his time at the Academy. Dudley, the noncommissioned officer in charge of personnel at the 100th Missile Defense Brigade, said yes, but admitted she had no idea for what she signed up.Since 2016, the Dudleys have sponsored Barney, and Colton Hayes, of Chandler, Arizona, both of whom will graduate as part of the class of 2020. Barney said he will return the salute of Dudley in his first salute as an officer, an honor typically reserved for the NCO who had the most impact on a new officer.“Sponsorship is a four-year commitment,” Dudley said. “Fourth-class cadets attend Basic Cadet Training and emails go out to sponsors to see if they have room to sponsor another cadet for Doolie Day Out. Doolie Day Out is a 12-hour break from basic training when sponsor families can pick up the cadets for a day of rest, food and more rest.“We asked for a second cadet for Doolie Day and met Colton,” she said. “We agreed that day that we would become his sponsor family over cheeseburgers and chocolate shakes.”Dudley has served in the Army for more than 30 years and affectionately refers to her cadets as her “boys.” She said each was given a room of his own and a house key – neither of which are requirements of the sponsorship program.“It’s been my second home from day one,” Barney said. “They asked me what my favorite foods were and what I missed most. I really missed wings. That became our go-to meal, Buffalo wings, and pizza. They asked me what I liked to drink, and blue Gatorade was the first thing that came to mind.”“Cool blue,” the Dudleys both echoed in unison.“One time, I asked if they had any ice cream, and they didn’t,” said Barney. “Ever since then, there has been blue Gatorade in the fridge and ice cream in the freezer. They’re my family away from the hill.”Dudley noted that Barney would give her a heads up when he planned to come over, but he rarely came alone, often bringing three or four of his friends in tow.“We had to jump into parent mode,” said Dudley, a mother of two. “Company’s coming, and we have to get ready.“The sponsor guidebook and sponsor training say to open your house to these kids like they’re your own,” she said. “It helped me grow. I am an introvert and it has always been a challenge to socialize outside of my typical circle of military friends and close family. During that first year, my home became a revolving door of 18-year-olds. I was prepared to change bedding, assist with laundry and cook, cook, cook. I had the Kool-Aid house; all the kids came for food, family and rest. I wanted to give them a safe and comfortable place to be.”The USAFA Sponsor Family Handbook encourages participation by active-duty officers in grades O-3 and above and NCOs in grades E-6 and above. Mills said the program is joint, meaning service members from any branch of service can be sponsors.“I love it when cadets can be exposed to someone from a different service with a different perspective, and yet a common purpose,” he said.However, Mills said that sponsors are not required to be military members.“Roughly a third of our sponsor families are civilian,” said Mills. “They still can be marvelous mentors, helping our young men and women grow up into mature adults.”Another intent of the sponsorship program is to provide cadets with a mentor outside of their chain of command. Mills said appointed cadets complete a questionnaire to closely match them to a compatible sponsor before they even in process at the Academy.“We try and match sponsor families and cadets with common interests so that it’s a good mix,” he said. “We often see a mutually beneficial relationship built.”For the Smiths, mentoring comes naturally. They volunteer at their church to guide young adults and new couples, in addition to sponsoring cadets. Currently, they sponsor nine cadets, three of whom belong to the class of 2020. Smith said he tries to impart the wisdom he has gleaned from a lengthy military career on his cadets, but added that it is not a one-way conversation.“The character building goes both ways,” he said. “You build yourself as well. It helps you improve your developmental skills.”Smith is an ambassador of the sponsor program and has encouraged other brigade Soldiers and their families to sponsor cadets, including Dudley, Capt. Jarrod Cuthbertson and Capt. Kevin Weger.“I love the program,” said Smith. “I preach it. I try and get as many other people involved as I can. The reward outweighs the time and effort. You just have to be yourself. The relationships and friendships I have built with the cadets – and in many cases, their parents – has had a big impact on my career and my own development. You get more back than you put into it.”While Smith has built enduring connections with many of his cadets and their families, he believes the main benefactors are his two young sons.“The biggest impact has been on my kids,” he said. “I often tell people that my kids are going to go to the Air Force Academy; they just don’t know it yet.”To learn more about the USAFA Cadet Sponsor Program, click here.