01/06/14 — Experience on call: backup for families

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Experience on call: backup for families

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on January 6, 2014 1:46 PM

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Ret. Air Force Maj. Mick O'Donnell and Ann Price discuss "Retirees on Call" at the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base Chapel Annex. ROC is made up of retired military and military wives and will contribute services to deployed families such as delivering meals, tutoring students and baby-sitting.

A chance conversation with a base chaplain has turned into an effort to connect military retirees with service families who could use a little support.

Karin O'Donnell already had her own personal connections with the Air Force -- first growing up as a military dependent then as the military spouse of Mick O'Donnell, who served for 21 years. Both now retired educators, they continue to have a heart for those who serve this country.

A few months ago, when Mick was talking with base Chaplain Dwayne Keener, one topic prompted a response.

"We talked about the suicide rate and the assault rate (among airmen)," he said. "(Keener) challenged me to come up with something."

The "something" has evolved into ROC -- Retirees On Call.

"Our original thought was that you have a lot of young people who come in here and they have no roots, they're new, in the military, they have a young family and they're deployed," Mrs. O'Donnell said. "We thought about outreach to deployed families who need to learn the area, need someone to talk to. Maybe they need to talk about their first war experience."

"Or they need a grandma or grandpa (stand-in)," her husband said.

"Just little things," Mrs. O'Donnell continued. "Suppose they need someone to watch their children for a few hours and they really don't know their neighbors. Base housing has been cut from 1,800 units to 600 units so most of them are living off base."

While the initial idea for a volunteer or mentor program was directed toward the active-duty community, Mick said they soon discovered that the retirees had needs, also.

"An 87-year-old retired Air Force nurse got in touch with me because she had received a new laptop computer from her daughter and had no idea about how to set it up or any of the other things you might do with a computer," he said. "It took a couple visits, about six hours total, to get things straightened out."

Then there was the "panicked" call he got from a retiree who had just received a $300 phone bill that did not fit in her budget. Mick said he interceded and was able to get the matter resolved.

"If anything were to confirm the appropriateness of ROC Seymour, that was it," he said.

The bottom line is connection, whether to a young airman far from home or to a settled retiree who would also be willing to build relationships.

"There are small groups that do that -- the Y has senior volunteers, the senior center," Mrs. O'Donnell said. "But as far as I can see there's not a concentration of volunteerism with military retirees. This is much more like that, a retiree bank of potential.

"Military retirees are prone to give back and most of them have a sense of what we have. Retirees don't want another job. They want to do something they're passionate about."

It might be preparing and delivering a meal to a deployed airman's family, or inviting a single airman or young family to dinner. It could be giving the spouse of a deployed member a couple hours "sanity break" from the childen or tutoring a child.

"Someone might do something once a year and someone else might do something every week," Mrs. O'Donnell said of the range of commitment involved in the program.

ROC is still in the infancy stages, the couple say, but is already taking on "a life of its own." And it doesn't have too be limited to military installations, O'Donnell said.

"I don't know how big it's going to end up," he said. "I could see 100 ROCs, one for each county in North Carolina."

Since the outset, he said, the response from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base has been positive.

"(4th Fighter Wing Commander) Col. Jeannie Leavitt thinks this is a wonderful idea," he said.

The couple envision enlisting not only the base chapel but other base officials to spread the word about the program. They are also working on gathering lists of anyone who might benefit from such a service as well as making a list of needs, and then building community connections.

"We have met with some of the churches out there. We thought we would hold a dinner with ROC people and the young airman and the families of the deployed," Mrs. O'Donnell said.

"We have met with CLIFF (Clergy Living In Faith and Fellowship)," her husband added. "What we would really like is a retired military couple from each church."

The base chapel has provided ROC with an office and a phone and a computer. They also are creating a Facebook page for ROC Seymour and plan to develop a website.

"Anybody interested, leave a message on the base phone, 919-722-4480, or call 919-580-0007 or 920-4480," he said. "Or show up at the base chapel at (the next meeting) 11:30 a.m. on Jan. 8."