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Case Study #18: Meeting Military Families Where They Live

A universe of givers births Blue Star Families

In late 2008, seven military spouses from different places, service branches, deployment cycles, and phases of life met by happenstance and realized that, while the military is a supportive community, there was work to be done in meeting some of the needs of military families. The new organization they formed that year is called Blue Star Families. “Military families are not always set up to cross-pollinate, because of geographic dispersion,” says co-founder Vivian Greentree. While official Family Readiness Groups effectively support families during their servicemembers’ deployments, little exists to help connect families between deployments, or across service branches, or in different career stages, never mind through the servicemember’s process of reintegrating into civilian life.

Beyond the humanitarian value of increasing life quality for military families, there is a national interest in protecting the well-being of these households, Greentree notes. “If we want to continue to have an all-volunteer force, we need people who want to volunteer. A lot of them have families. These bright leaders that the military has trained will not stay in if their spouses can’t progress in their own career, or if their kids don’t have the resources they need.”

As a local chapter-based organization, Blue Star Families focuses on “supporting, connecting, and empowering” military families. Once linked with lots of their peers, families can help themselves. The organization also provides some direct programming to military families. In the first four years of its life, the group grew to 31 chapters based mostly at military installations, and serving thousands of military family members around the globe.

For Us, by Us

The staff of Blue Star Families spans nine time zones. As executive director Mark Smith says, “That’s where military families are.” Every member of its 16-person staff is a veteran, family member of a veteran, or a military spouse, who directly understand the needs of military families because they live the life themselves every day.

That’s how the organization’s Books on Bases program sprang up. “Base libraries are notoriously underfunded and don’t have the best selections,” explains Greentree. “So what can we do about that? We decided to get a donor to come and donate books.” With corporate philanthropic support from McDonald’s, Disney, and several publishers, Blue Star Families has donated 100,000 books to military children through local base chapters in just two years.

Blue Star Museums is another popular program that bloomed quickly with philanthropic support. Blue Star CEO Kathy Roth-Douquet had already been taking her kids to museums as a way to get through their father’s deployments. Of course, museum tickets can be expensive, so some military families could not afford to do this often. In 2009, the MetLife Foundation underwrote the costs of administering a new program in which museums around the country agree to offer free admission or special programming for military family members between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Blue Star Families advertised the program among military families, and it was a hit. In the latest year, the program’s third, more than 450,000 participants visited about 1,800 museums during the four-month open season. “I can take my kids to a museum and say, ‘They’re doing this for us because your dad is serving,’” explains Greentree.

The secret to the popularity of Blue Star’s programming is its focus on eliciting and responding to the needs of its constituents. It conducts an annual survey of military families, collecting and publishing responses on a wide range of challenges, opportunities, attitudes, and concerns. In its 2013 survey, the group sampled 5,125 respondents from a wide range of backgrounds.

The survey has been funded by donors like the Blue Shield of California Foundation. Part of what attracted the foundation to Blue Star Families was its “for us, by us” nature. The group’s members represent themselves, without filtering by third parties.

Because BSF is an independent organization, its Military Family Lifestyle Survey has the freedom to ask many questions that Department of Defense surveys do not. In addition to yielding important demographic and attitudinal data on military family life, the annual survey is the primary tool by which BSF charts its work.

The staff of Blue Star Families all live the life themselves, so they understand the needs of military families.

BSF’s first survey revealed that 95 percent of respondents felt that most civilians did not understand their service. One day, the kindness of one of Greentree’s neighbors gave her an idea for how the group might respond. “One of my sons got a letter from a neighbor while my husband was deployed and it said, ‘You’re doing a great job. Keep it up.’ It was so touching.” There are many programs that send letters to servicemembers. But there were none that allowed people to write letters to military families showing their support. Operation Appreciation was born, and subsequently grew rapidly. Greentree sees it as more than just a chance for emotional venting; it is an opportunity to bridge the civil-military divide in a very concrete way.

Addressing the Whole Family, not Just the Servicemember

The annual survey, which continues to be funded by donors, has inspired other initiatives. The 2012 questionnaire found that among the families polled, 26 percent of the military spouses who wanted to work were unemployed. While many programs, philanthropic and governmental alike, have been created in recent years to address unemployment among veterans, this problem that military spouses have in finding work is rarely understood, much less ameliorated.

Frequent moves, spousal absences, and other factors are behind this difficulty in finding good work. The Blue Star survey showed that many spouses balance these difficulties by volunteering at higher than normal rates. Unfortunately, according to the BSF survey, only two-thirds of the spouses found their volunteer experience useful when looking for a job. Greentree saw a gap to fill.

“We began working with Hiring Our Heroes and the Military Spouse Employment Partnership, because they have access to private companies who want to hire military spouses. No amount of job fairs, though, would bridge the gap if spouses aren’t bringing in competitive résumés. And they aren’t competitive if they leave off the majority of their volunteer experience. Our surveys consistently show that military spouses are volunteering at incredible rates, building skills in the process that employers can use. So we got together a group of volunteers and said ‘We’re going to put together a résumé translator.’” With funding from Hiring Our Heroes, Blue Star created a mechanism for translating common volunteer experiences within military families into terms understandable by commercial employers.

BSF also found that many military families have little help during transitions—adjusting to a deployment, the servicemember’s return, a move to a new base, the transition to civilian life. With support from CBS and Vulcan Productions, Blue Star created a Family Reintegration Toolkit. It offers information on what to expect, and advice on how to navigate different phases. The handbook includes very concrete checklists, information on resources available, and vignettes of family life throughout the military lifecycle. The first edition was distributed in hard cover to 300,000 military families across the country.

Noeleen Tillman, managing director of BSF, anticipates continuing demand for the toolkit. “Many military families expected to have a long career, but given the drawdown now on the horizon, there won’t be opportunities for a lot of them.” Additional donations from several sources, including NBC Universal and the Wounded Warrior Project, have allowed the group to update and expand the toolkit and convert it into an e-book for wider distribution starting in 2013. Asked why Blue Star Families chose to focus on this, Tillman responds that this subject “came back as a high priority in our survey. We build our programs around what our members need.”

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