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Feature Article - January 2018

To Better Serve Those Who Serve

How Recreation Managers Can Support Military and Veteran Audiences More Effectively

By Chris Gelbach


A Focus on Childcare

According to some estimates, as many as 70 to 80 percent of military families and their members live off base. Those living on base are more likely to be single service members or higher-ranking officers whose families can get on-base housing. As a result, more of the off-base population interested in using community facilities are younger families who greatly value having childcare options when they attend recreational facilities.

"One of the things that we have heard over and over again is that the single greatest challenge our folks are facing is access to affordable childcare," said Chris Haley, chief of staff and vice president of marketing and communications for the Armed Services YMCA National Headquarters. "If they can go to a place outside the gate that has childcare and is affordable and safe and then they can go work out, that's what they're going to do. Because otherwise, they can't work out."

Just as the First Coast YMCA does, the Armed Services YMCA sees high enrollment from military families for half-day, full-day and overnight camp programs. "Summer camps serve as a proxy for childcare in the summertime," Ashish Varzirani, senior vice president for programs for the Armed Services YMCA National Headquarters. These programs allow military spouses who work during the school year the much-needed opportunity to still do so during the summer.

Providing Low-Cost, High-Quality Programs

Because members of the military are accustomed to high-quality MWR programs, it's important for local recreation facilities serving this demographic to meet this quality expectation. At the same time, however, many members of the military are also used to receiving these opportunities for free or at a discounted rate.

There can also be a tremendous difference between military families of different ranks in income and ability to afford various programs and services. "If you're a family of four and you're an E-3 or an E-4 [which are junior enlisted ranks], compared to an E-8 or an E-9 [senior non-commissioned officer], you might be making one-third the money they are," said Varzirani. "So you need to think about graduated scales on these discounts if you want to make it affordable."

That's exactly what First Coast YMCA has done. While the Y offers income-based pricing as a financial assistance tool, Stack felt that using different nomenclature and offering rank-based pricing would resonate more positively with active-duty military personnel. "Acknowledging that these are men and women who serve with honor and dignity, calling it financial assistance may not be in line with the values and principles that we want to convey to them."

After introducing the new membership plan, First Coast YMCA signed up more than 750 active-duty service members and families in the first four months. "For our association, that's astounding numbers coming out of the block."

Leveraging Sponsorship Opportunities

For recreation facilities, it may at first appear difficult to offer such low-cost opportunities to military families. But sponsorship opportunities can help defray the costs and enable recreation departments to support these communities while still staying within budgets.

"You may have more luck getting resourcing for military-related programs than you are for your other programs because people want to support the military," Enoch said. "People with money—foundations, corporations—they're always looking for ways to support the military."

To attract and sustain these sponsorships, Enoch stressed the importance of measuring the community impact of your recreation programs to build credibility. "There are a lot of really great opportunities out there where you can put your resources to support the military, but there are a lot of rip-offs, too," Enoch said. "So you've got to be credible."

According to Stack, First Coast YMCA has been able to find corporate sponsors and other community sponsors to cover the cost of some of these camp opportunities for military service families.

Popular Program Options

When creating program opportunities, certain programs are sure to attract military service members. Since running is a fitness requirement for service members, and races can also be a family activity, any kind of run is worth marketing to military communities. "Adventure runs like the mud runs and Tough Mudder and Spartan Races are really popular right now in the military community," Enoch said. "Also, anything that families can do at no cost, like festivals, are hugely popular right now. Families just want an excuse to get out and do something fun."

Because intramurals are well-funded by the military and viewed as an important team-building activity for military units, efforts to include military members in recreational sports leagues are also likely to be successful.

Outdoor recreation is also growing increasingly popular. "High adventure is one of our biggest-growing areas, whether it's rafting, kayaking, rock climbing, those types of things," Gwinn said. "Fitness is also a growing area—a lot of that is directed classes and functional fitness."

Military members living off base tend to be families who move often and want to integrate into their communities quickly and successfully. Youth sports and other youth programs are appealing since they give the children in military families a way to make friends before the school year begins.

In some respects, military recreation trends are dovetailing with those in civilian recreation, including a more holistic emphasis on health. "We're seeing that healthy eating is aligning more and more with recreation and fitness," said Tim Higdon, Healthy Army Communities program manager, Family and MWR, G9 IMCOM. "Having access to healthy food and beverages while they're at facilities and participating in programs is another thing that's starting to align outside and in our communities, as well."

While adaptive sports are popular among veterans with disabilities, they require specific expertise to administer and, for team sports, enough people interested in participating to form teams. But Enoch noted that other opportunities exist that might more closely relate to your existing programming.

"Beyond adaptive sports, there are other things you can provide that are just as effective," Enoch said. "What are you doing to drop military community members, veterans, families into your arts and crafts programs? A lot of our military population have disabilities you can't see. Arts and crafts, painting, stained glass, woodworking, music therapy, performing music, listening to music, equine therapy, walking in the woods—these are things that provide therapy to people who have experienced military service. They can be tremendously impactful to them in a positive way."

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