Communities coming together to support soldiers

Five communities are joining forces to assist service members and their families before, during and after the deployment cycle.

A group of troops welcomed home a fellow soldier March 31, 2010 after a 12-month deployment in Iraq. Yellow Ribbon cities seek to provide support to service members and their families before, during and after the deployment cycle. File photo by Tammy Sakry

A group of troops welcomed home a fellow soldier March 31, 2010 after a 12-month deployment in Iraq. Yellow Ribbon cities seek to provide support to service members and their families before, during and after the deployment cycle. File photo by Tammy Sakry

A kickoff meeting to begin the process for Andover, Anoka, Champlin, Coon Rapids and Ramsey to get Yellow Ribbon Community designations will take place Thursday, March 29 at 6:30 p.m. at the Green Haven Golf and Banquet Center, 2800 Greenhaven Road in Anoka.

The Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program was not around when Anoka Police Officer Mike Whitaker was last deployed to Iraq between 2004 and 2005, but a family assistance program out of the Anoka Armory and other citizens helped out his wife when she moved to a new home and needed help paying some bills.

Whitaker said when a service member is deployed, their fellow service members have to become their first priority because their lives are on the line. The family at home becomes a second priority.

“Essentially the people at home are on their own, so it’s good to have someone give them the assistance they need,” Whitaker said.

He was deployed three times during his 23 years in the Army and National Guard, including to Central America in the 1980s and during the first Gulf War in late 1990 and early 1991.

Master Sgt. David Denton, Minnesota National Guard outreach coordinator for the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program, said there are likely businesses and organizations in these five communities that already help out service members and their families. The goal is to get a comprehensive contact list that can be shared with military families.

Becoming a Yellow Ribbon Community is far more complex than compiling a list of people who can help, according to Rebecca Olson.

Olson is an executive assistant for the city of Blaine and is a member of Blaine’s Yellow Ribbon steering committee, which is led by Blaine Mayor Tom Ryan.

Olson said cities going through the process of becoming a Yellow Ribbon Community need to have representatives from eight different key areas including educators for youth, elected officials, employers, faith-based organizations, veterans and civic organizations, public safety/judicial, medical and social services organizations and volunteers from the community.

Once the group forms a steering committee, it must document how its members will be able to help service members and their families and how they will get the word out about what they do.

For example, Blaine’s draft plan says that Blaine police officers will receive awareness training to aid in identifying service members and families who may benefit from the Yellow Ribbon program resources. When someone needs prayer, Kingswood Church will notify its church members in its “prayer chain link.” Blaine is also looking to put together a comprehensive list of business discounts offered to service members.

According to Denton, some communities can complete these tasks in six months. Some may take two years. It all depends on how quickly they can fill out their paperwork. Blaine’s kickoff meeting was in late April 2011.

In the meantime, the Blaine Beyond the Yellow Ribbon steering committee has been able to help people, according to Olson. For example, it donated $700 worth of Christmas presents and money to some military families. Volunteers have chipped in on yard work, plowing snow, putting together care packages, tutoring students and much more.

Olson echoed Denton in saying that many of these volunteer activities were already happening, but the Yellow Ribbon committee gave the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon’s family assistance centers a more comprehensive look at who could help out.

Although Blaine and its neighbor Spring Lake Park have worked on becoming Yellow Ribbon communities on their own, Denton said it is not unusual for more than one community to work together on this.

Bayport, Bayport Township, Oak Park Heights and West Lakeland Township worked together, for example, and nine communities formed the Central Minnesota Warrior to Citizen Initiative, he said.

“If one community is lacking in one area, other communities can help pick up the slack,” Denton said.

These five communities could also help people outside their cities, he said.

Eric Hagen is at eric.hagen@ecm-inc.com

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