JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- When Sybille White sees a problem, she doesn’t waste time feeling sorry for herself. Instead, she gets to work on finding solutions.

That’s how she ended up starting a working focus group for the Army Community Services Exceptional Family Member Program. The group has monthly meetings where everyone from medical professionals to EFMP members can get together to identify and address problems " and it’s grown dramatically since starting five months ago.

“It’s beyond our expectations, it really is,” she said.

After 23 years as an Army spouse, White has learned a lot. Originally from Germany, life in the Army was a totally different world. Then, when her second child was diagnosed with autism, she had a whole new set of programs and terms to navigate.

After more than two decades of moving her family of five to and from duty stations, she’s seen just about everything the Army could throw at her. But even an experienced spouse like her can take up to six months to find resources when an exceptional Family member has a new diagnosis, and life becomes even more complicated when the Family’s servicemember is deployed.

It’s an issue she brought up at a Transition Update with the Chief of Staff of the Army in 2007. Invited community members got to ask pre-approved questions, and White wanted to know what the Army was going to do to help Families like hers when one parent is gone so much of the time. Following the meeting an aide asked her to send any thoughts she had on the subject to him personally " and she did.

“The United States Army is a great organization, one that is known for helping and supporting Families,” she wrote in the cover letter to a six-page outline of a Deployment Support Plan she devised. “However, much more support is needed for Families who have children with disabilities.”
White was too inspired by the experience to stop there, though. Stationed in Hawaii at the time, she and another senior spouse lobbied hard to start a focus group to fix the problems that they saw around them.

Not everyone was supportive. A lot of people had an “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” attitude.
That wasn’t good enough for White.

“The EFMP system is not broken but it needs a lot of help,” she said.

What started as a few spouses meeting to talk about their own problems expanded into a formal group attended by everyone from senior leaders to health care providers. It was so successful by the time she left, White was eager to try again when she arrived at JBLM last July.

Now she volunteers as the installation’s ACS EFMP Army parent representative, and has helped coordinate a constantly growing group of stakeholders each month. Representatives from McChord, JBLM Child, Youth and School Services, I Corps and individual Families attend to talk about what needs work and how to change it.

“We’re the squeaky wheel,” ACS EFMP Manager Mary Herrera said at the group’s July meeting.
With so much knowledge in the same room, it makes it a little easier to start coordinating efforts between organizations. The hope is that they can begin addressing kinks in the system before they become problems and provide better care for Families.

“The focus group is kind of giving us the opportunity to pull together,” ACS EFMP social services assistant Jackie Kelly said.

It also lets Family members know that they are not the only ones having issues.
“It’s nice to give folks a forum,” Kelly said.

White is quick to point out that she couldn’t have done any of this on her own. She’s had help from many people around her, including the ones who encouraged her to keep speaking out when it seemed like nobody wanted to listen.

In the end, she doesn’t think she’s exceptional for making the group happen.
“Anybody could do this,” White said.

“It’s kind of up to you,” she added. “The choice is yours.”

Marisa Petrich: