Feature Article - January 2018
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To Better Serve Those Who Serve

How Recreation Managers Can Support Military and Veteran Audiences More Effectively

By Chris Gelbach

As park districts and recreation facilities look to better serve their constituencies, they sometimes struggle with how best to meet the needs of military service members, their families and the veteran population. But departments that build the right partnerships, create programs that meet the unique needs of these communities, and truly commit to serving these audiences can achieve long-term success.

"This topic is complex and difficult," said Matt Enoch, community program coordinator of the directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) at Fort Riley, Kan. "I know that recreation professionals want to serve the military community, but they don't understand it … they feel like it's almost a completely different world. And in some respects, it's different, but it's also the same."

For some recreation departments located near major military installations, a focus on military patrons is particularly important. But even small towns 1,000 miles from the nearest military base will likely have residents with military connections, and prominent military or veterans' organizations worth partnering with.

"You need to be able to look at your community and your resources and what you have in your town, and you need to be able to build and maintain relationships with people," Enoch said. "It's not going to come to you. If you really want to support the military community in your town, or if you're near a military facility and want to reach out to them, you've got to get out and make it happen."

In communities that aren't near a military base, Enoch recommends building relationships with other local organizations such as the USO, the local VA hospital, the American Legion and the VFW. And he recommends that recreation managers who are near a military base not only reach out to the local installation, but also visit the base.

"You might have to get a tag [to get on the base], but there's nothing that keeps you off the military installation and seeing what's going on there in terms of recreation service," Enoch said. "You've got to see what's going on—that's how you're going to find out what people in your community need and want."

This is important because military bases can vary greatly in what amenities they offer. Some installations are vast and offer tremendous recreation opportunities on base. And the majority offer state-of-the-art fitness centers because of the natural emphasis that the U.S. Armed Forces places on the fitness of its service members.

Filling in the Gaps

By building the right partnerships, local recreation managers can successfully identify the right options to support existing MWR offerings and supplement the often-impressive recreational offerings that already exist for service members and their families.

"We work locally, so the local parks and rec directors need to reach out to the local MWR directors," said Josh Gwinn, chief of community recreation for Army MWR. "We're definitely emphasizing [those partnerships] here at headquarters, but sometimes it just takes a reach out from the local parks and rec director to the MWR director, and you will see a lot of great things happen between the two."

Andrew Stack is senior director of membership and business development for YMCA of Florida's First Coast, a 14-facility local YMCA association that serves roughly 150,000 members in the five-county area surrounding Jacksonville. When he created a strategy for better serving the veteran and active-duty military communities, he was aware from his own military experience of the great facilities and programs that MWR often offers. He also made a point of stressing that the First Coast YMCAs were interested in supporting, not competing with, MWR offerings.

"We specifically introduced ourselves and got ourselves in face-to-face meetings with the base leaders and the MWR leaders to say, look, we are not your competition. We are not a threat to you," Stack said. "We want to fill in gaps where you either have a demand that's too high and you can't possibly provide it, or maybe it's something that's not in your wheelhouse. Where can we provide additional opportunities that you don't have the staff or the funding or the capacity to deliver on? And out of the gate, the MWR offices here in Jacksonville have been very welcoming to that."

First Coast YMCA received additional insights by creating an outside advisory council made up of military leaders and former military leaders as well as community leaders and partners who serve the active-duty and veteran communities. Stack noted that among the council members are a one-star general, the city of Jacksonville's military liaison officer and the CEO of the USO, in addition to additional junior-ranking active-duty personnel. "We let them steer us," Stack said. "They tell us what they need—the things that MWR or other service organizations do not provide."

In the case of First Coast YMCA, one opportunity appeared in providing various camp options that could support single parents whose spouses were deployed in caring for their children, from day camps to summer camps and resident camps.

To schedule various camp options effectively, First Coast YMCA looked at the schedules of local facilities. For instance, the Camp Blanding Joint Training Center is about five miles from the YMCA's resident camp, and hosts two-week summer training sessions and monthly weekend assignments for the Florida National Guard. This spring, First Coast YMCA will extend its resident camp options to allow service members to drop their child off on a Friday for the weekend while they're at Camp Blanding completing their monthly Guard duty.