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Home Away From Home: connecting Airmen with community

Barb Callaway, honorary commander to the 22nd Air Refueling Wing vice commander, and fellow members of the Wichita McConnell Ladies group, decorate the Robert J. Dole community center Nov. 29, 2016, at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. Members of the Wichita McConnell Ladies, many of whom participate in the Home Away From Home program, adorn the Dole Center for Christmas, in an attempt to bring the holidays to Team McConnell. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jenna K. Caldwell)

Barb Callaway, honorary commander to the 22nd Air Refueling Wing vice commander, and fellow members of the Wichita McConnell Ladies group, decorate the Robert J. Dole community center Nov. 29, 2016, at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. Members of the Wichita McConnell Ladies, many of whom participate in the Home Away From Home program, adorn the Dole Center for Christmas, in an attempt to bring the holidays to Team McConnell. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jenna K. Caldwell)

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. -- The smell of home cooking wafts in the air as warm, easy conversation drifts through the halls; transforming the house into a home. This feeling enwraps family and friends together, particularly during the holiday season.

With the constant re-shuffling of duty stations that comes with military life, this traditional homey atmosphere can be lost in the translation for many military members, especially single Airmen who are new to their first duty station.

In an attempt to bring Airmen closer to the community, Team McConnell and members of the Wichita community are working hand-in-hand to give Airmen a home away from home.

The Home Away From Home program pairs Airmen living in the base dorms with families from the local community. This effort reaches out single, first-term Airmen to help them adjust from a training environment and mindset and get settled into the base and surrounding area.

The families off base open up their homes and lives to Airmen and commit to spending at least few days a month with the Airmen.

What started as a developing idea by McConnell leadership and spouses was materialized by Barb Callaway, president and founder of the Wichita McConnell Ladies group, who kicked off a program this past October.

Callaway is a mother and grandmother herself, so she knew the way to approach Airmen. Callaway and program partners visit Airmen attending the First-Term Airman Center class with their proposal.

“I bring them in a package full of cookies, my card and always some little fun something to get their attention,” said Callaway, honorary commander to the 22nd Air Refueling Wing vice commander. “I tell them to call me Mrs. Barb and I ask them, ‘Who do you trust more than a grandma?’ I come in as a friend, not as a speaker. I want them to know we’re here for them.”

Airmen interested in the program, they are matched with a family with similar interests. Each side goes through a personal interview process with Callaway to ensure they are the right fit.

“Some go to church together, to Wichita State University basketball games, hockey games, or just come to their house for dinner,” explained Callaway. “It’s about caring, having the heart and taking the time. Maybe these Airmen just need a hug, maybe they need to you to just remember their name; something that small could help.”

The new program, which kicked-off before the holiday season, had 10 Airmen adopted out to families for the Thanksgiving holiday. Airman 1st Class Jeremias Caez, 22nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron hydraulics journeyman, was one of these Airmen.

“It was really nice; everybody got together; cooking, talking and telling stories,” Caez describes. “They were very welcoming. They named themselves my grandparents and they treated me as such. By the end of the night they were very insistent that I leave with containers of food—you know how grandparents are about feeding their grandkids.”

Through this program, Airmen can find much more than just a mentor and a sounding board. It also gives them a break from military stress and presents a family atmosphere for mentoring. But Callaway emphasizes that it is an idea that would not be possible without a cohesive base-community relationship.

“You have to have community groups like the Wichita Ladies, the Golden Eagles or the Honorary Commanders to step into the program or it won’t work,” Callaway pointed out. “I’ve lived everywhere, and Wichita is one the very best cities because of good, honest people. I’ve pulled in all these wonderful people to help with the program and this program works because of the people.”

All in all, there are hopes that the Home Away From Home program leaves a lasting impression on Airmen.

“I’m adopting all these Airmen; they’re mine now,” jested Callaway. “I’m just a grandma and I’m going to help these Airmen. I won’t let them forget me. We’re only in that class for 10 minutes telling them about our program, but for that 10 minutes they weren’t being yelled at—they were listening to a grandma eating a cookie with time to just stop, relax and smile.”