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Air Force Aid Society likes nothing better than to say yes

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer

Wally Rodriguez, a mechanic at the Auto Hobby Shop, is one of several experts who do routine maintenance checks on cars as part of the Aid Society auto service program.

Photo by Nick Stubbs

When you are in the helping hands business, there is nothing you like saying better than "yes" when an Airman or family members are seeking help to make their lives easier.

Dora Mays, a community readiness technician who heads up the Air Force Aid Society at MacDill, is thankful that the relief and assistance program is so well supported these days, she rarely has to say anything but yes.

Funded from private donations and officially through the Air Force, the Aid Society at MacDill helps Airmen, but also can help process relief for Soldiers, Sailors and Marines by routing them to their respective support agencies. Assistance to Air Force families includes paying household bills through loans or grants, child care and auto repair bills, which make up the bulk of the assistance provided. Each case is examined to determine eligibility. The Aid Society can be reached during regular business hours at 828-2721 to make an appointment.

For the last two years the Aid Society office has been very active, dealing with the family fallout of so many deployed servicemembers.

"It got really busy after 9/11," said Mrs. Mays. "In fact, we had to add staff just to support the number of cases we were handling."

While the initial surge in demand following the start of actions in Afghanistan and Iraq has settled somewhat the Aid Society office remains busy, particularly as long deployments stress military families. Supporting the families of Reservists also keeps everyone hopping, since so many have been deployed.

"It is right after someone is deployed that many spouses find out they have a problem," said Mrs. Mays. "They may not have realized the car would need maintenance because it was something the husband did; so the next thing you know they have car trouble and no money to get it fixed."

Mrs. Mays said in these cases the Aid Society steps in to help, offering a no-interest loan or in some extreme hardship cases, even a gift of funds to handle the problem. Utility and grocery bills, child-care costs and other daily expenses are evaluated by the same criteria and are based on need and ability to repay. "Luxury" expenses and non-essentials like cell phone bills and credit card debt are not covered.

In 2004 the Aid Society spent $224,246 to assist Airmen and their families. They processed $125,446 for Army members through the Army Emergency Relief program and $41,116 through the Navy/MC Relief Society. Funds raised through the 2004 Air Force Assistance Fund Campaign were $40,478.

Among the other programs, the money allows the Aid Society to lessen the stress on Air Force families in the moving process. Up to 28 hours of child-care expenses will be covered for those moving out or moving in.

"Moving from one location to another is very stressful, particularly if you have kids," said Mrs. Mays. "We have a program in which we can provide free day care for parents who need to get packed up to leave and also to unpack and move in when they arrive. It is very much appreciated by those who need a break at a very stressful time."

Short-term child care also is offered to moms and dads whose spouse is deployed or on temporary duty that lasts more than a month. The "Give Parents and Break" program covers the cost of day care for four or five hours. The Youth Center opens its doors on Saturdays just to accommodate them.

"Sometimes you just need a break to shop without the kids, to take a bath without any interruptions, or just to read and relax," said Mrs. Mays. "It can be very stressful when you don't have the support of your spouse and we recognize that."

The Aid Society has come a long way and used the lessons learned during the Gulf War to adopt a proactive approach to dealing with the problems families face during deployments. Adding routine auto checkups and oil changes was one of those areas where it was recognized that costs could be cut by preventing major mechanical problems that sap families and the Aid Society. A much more active public relations and information campaign also means families are more aware of the services offered, preventing them from doing the wrong thing and making their situation worse by seeking payday loans or other high-interest fixes that only lead to more debt.

"By getting out in front and being proactive instead of reactive we really keep the costs down and solve problems easier and faster," said Mrs. Mays. "We've really come a long way in the way we deal with things as opposed to the way it used to be."

Another lesson learned was the importance of preparing spouses for the workforce to ensure they can be employed. With computer skills in demand in nearly every marketplace, the Aid Society has partnered with Learey Technical Center in Tampa, and offers computer skills and office training. The classes are always booked and there usually is a waiting list, making the offering one of the most popular services the Aid Society offers.

Heart Link is a new program and the Aid Society is pushing to get out the word to new Air Force spouses who feel buried by the rules, regulations and programs associated with Air Force life. The course outlines everything spouses need to know about procedures, policies and services.

The Aid Society is limited to providing financial assistance only to Air Force families, which means many of the services available to Airmen and families are not provided to other branches. But Mrs. Mays encourages all branches to check with the Aid Society to see what is available, as it does receive donations from private organizations like Friends of Military Families. Sometimes the funds are designated for certain branches and needs, such as phone cards to help Army Soldiers cover the cost of calling overseas. The Aid Society is authorized to distribute these contributions directly to the intended branches.

"We can't always help everyone, but that is our goal and we do as much as we can," she said. "We are always looking at ways of doing more, so it is an ongoing process."

 

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