By LISA DANIEL
American Forces Press Service
As Missouri National Guard members met with Dr. Jill Biden last week to discuss their family challenges and areas of support, Jenn Whitacre’s feedback was both professional and personal.
As a National Guard family assistance center coordinator in Jefferson City, Whitacre spends her days helping Guard Families—pursuing job opportunities, finding childcare, arranging transportation, shoveling snow, and the like. As it turned out, Whitacre’s toughest challenge was her own.
Whitacre’s husband, Army National Guard Spc. Shane Whitacre, returned from a year in Iraq with a shoulder injury that proved more complicated than the couple expected. Shane needed surgery and would not be able to lift anything or drive for six months. In the weeks after the surgery, he would spend six hours each day in a physical therapy chair and another six in an ice pack.
The couple had arranged their schedules around that of their four children, but things got complicated when they learned Shane would not be able to lift their 6-month-old daughter. Jenn had to leave at 6 a.m. for work each day, and daycare didn’t open until after 7.
“There are all these small things you don’t think about, like how to get the baby in and out of the car seat,” Whitacre said. She called the couple’s church and found a parishioner willing to help, but then the volunteer got sick and the plan fell through.
With the Christmas holidays upon them, Whitacre said, she didn’t know where to turn. She had taken pains to sort out all the details, “and this was going to be the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she said. Worse yet, she explained, she didn’t want to ask for help and, in fact, thought it might be inappropriate to do so, given her job in networking to help others.
Luckily for Whitacre, she works with Army Col. Gary Gilmore, joint force chaplain for the Missouri National Guard. Gilmore had been putting together a “Partners in Care” program, in which the Guard partners with churches and other religious groups to help National Guard families in their own communities.
Gilmore contacted the pastor of a church near the Whitacres and almost immediately located a volunteer—the wife of a Soldier in Shane’s unit—who had owned a daycare center. The referral came with the offer that if the Whitacres did not like the volunteer for any reason, Jenn said, they could call back for another referral.
As it turned out, the volunteer helped more than they could have imagined, Jenn said. She came to their home every morning, five days per week from December to April, to care for their daughter and also to give Shane rides to his medical appointments.
“She didn’t act like it was a big deal,” Jenn Whitacre said. “But every Monday through Friday she made a 45-minute to an hour commitment.
“It was amazing,” she added. “It was the one thing that we needed to continue functioning as a family and providing for our Family.”
The program, which began with the Maryland National Guard, allows the churches to help families under an agreement that there are no preconditions for church membership, donations or beliefs, Gilmore said. “It’s not a hook,” he said. “It’s the way they help us because they want to.”
Biden, wife of the vice president, met with Gilmore, Whitacre and others in Jefferson City to hear about the program as part of her regular outreach to military Families. The Bidens’ son, Beau, is an Army National Guard officer, and she and first lady Michelle Obama started the “Joining Forces” campaign to rally support for military Families.
“Guard men and women are so dispersed, but wherever they are, there’s usually a church,” Biden said. “It’s nice that we can lean on the churches, too.
“I saw it myself when my son was deployed to Iraq,” she added. “My church put my son’s name in the bulletin and complete strangers came up to me every week and said, ‘I’m praying for your son.’ You all know what it feels like to have someone deployed and really it never leaves you. You might try to pretend like things are normal, but they’re not. This program that you have is really just a wonderful program.”
Gilmore noted that in building the network of churches—35 are enrolled in the program—the Guard also has tapped into other support organizations such as Second Harvest Food Pantry and Catholic Charities.
“I’m networking the networks,” he said. “I can’t create a whole other set of social services, but I can get us all to work together.”
Gilmore gets excited by the numbers for potential support. There are 60 armories in Missouri and Soldiers and Airmen in all 114 counties, he explained. There are 9,750 churches in Missouri, he said, “So I have 11,500 Guardsman, and I’ve now moved from 60 places of support to potentially 9700.”
“The only thing that is more dispersed than our population is our faith-based community,” Gilmore said. “I’m equipping my pastors out where they meet our Guardsmen…. They are our first line of defense.”
“How do I get that guy who lives in Podunk Hollow the kind of help he needs?” Gilmore said. “He can get that through the local churches.”