By Sgt. Christopher M. Gaylord, 5th Mobile Public Affairs DetachmentSeptember 2, 2011
JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash., Sept. 2, 2011 -- The last two times her husband deployed, Raquel Onate had a plan in place: to travel with her three children back home to Chicago until his return.
But with Spc. Leopoldo Onate's third tour of duty already in the family's sites, she's seeing it more fit to stay this time around.
The Onates have only been on ground at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., since May, and already they have a distinct air of confidence in their new home station -- a place Raquel Onate says provides unprecedented support to their needs as a family with two children enrolled in the military's Exceptional Family Member Program, or EFMP.
"I'm actually thinking about staying for once, because I usually go home," Raquel Onate said. "But with the outreach and knowing where to go, and the help that's here, it will be better for us (to stay)."
A back-to-school carnival held Aug. 26 at the Chapel Support Center on McChord Field for families with EFMP-enrolled family members only solidified that belief for the Onates.
Theirs was just one of many families -- totaling approximately 280 people altogether -- to attend the event, now in its second year, which featured entertainment for children and invaluable information for parents from ten different support services and programs.
"These helping agencies can tell them about what they can do to support their particular children's disabilities," said Anthoni Buggage, a community readiness consultant with the Airman and Family Readiness Center on JBLM, who arranged the occasion. "The most important thing is for the parents to get out here and see some of the agencies that can support them."
For Raquel Onate, who admits that in five years of military life she's never experienced an event so conducive to the needs of EFMP families, that support is best summed up by one word.
"I think it's awesome," said Raquel Onate, the mother of one son, age 11, with high-functioning autism and two daughters, ages 8 and 9, one of whom has Down syndrome. "They had all the little posts and they gave you all this information and who you need to talk to. I've never had that at any other post."
"It's hard knowing that you want to help your children so badly, and you want to find out how it is you can help them, but without the resources it's a struggle," she added.
The event showcased informational booths run by representatives from Families Overcoming Under Stress, a military program that provides resiliency training to military families; the Child and Family Assistance Center; and the Partnership in Action, Voices for Empowerment 360 Military Family Center, which provides knowledge, support and resources to JBLM's special needs families, among several other booths.
Children were treated to popular cookout fare, a giant bounce house, face painting and the talents of Tacoma area balloon artist Roger Lander, who calls himself the Balloon Buffoon. Each child also received a backpack full of school supplies donated to the JBLM United Service Organizations.
But more important than all that -- at least in Leopoldo Onate's case -- is finally knowing exactly where to go for help when his family needs it, especially amid introduction to a new installation.
"I'm new here, so I don't know where everything's at," Leopoldo Onate, a carpentry and masonry specialist with the 585th Engineer Company, 864th Engineer Battalion. "I don't know who to talk to for certain resources. So, this helps the new people feel more welcome."
Pamela Brockmann, an outreach program coordinator with the Child and Family Assistance Center on JBLM, explained why feeling welcome is so important for military families.
"Each time families relocate, they always feel like they're starting from scratch again," she said. "But having events like this is a real bonus. It's a good thing."
Spc. Onate found it particularly accommodating that the carnival also had liaisons on hand to help parents find the right schools to tailor their children's specific needs.
"I have three kids, and they're each going to go to three different schools, so it's pretty hard to juggle different schools around," he said. "But this eliminates having to call all the schools."
Spc. Shawn Spray, an electrician with Onate's platoon at his very first duty station, considers JBLM the Army's premier installation for EFMP families.
"Here they can accommodate so many broad emotional, physical and mental issues," Spray said.
Spray's 5 year-old-son Cameron has a heart condition called Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle that causes it to thicken, making it harder for blood to leave the heart.
Spray says Cameron takes medicine just to keep his heart going and, sometime in the future, he'll need a transplant.
But here, at JBLM, when it comes time for him to get the transplant he needs, Cameron will be taken to one of only a few hospitals in the country that can help him, Seattle Children's Hospital.
"It's one of the only ones close to the installation that can help," Spray said.
At the end of the day, parents like Spray, whose struggles and frustrations don't end at deployments and changes of station, had their loads lightened just a little.
But, as was the case with Spray and his family, sometimes a little help goes a long way.
"We would have had to look and look and search the internet for information, and it would take ten times as long to find the same stuff," he said. "This event took all the info in one and passed it out."