Troop-Support Groups Share Ideas, Concerns in Atlanta

 By Samantha L. Quigley
 American Forces Press Service

 ATLANTA, Feb. 11, 2006  - Twelve representatives of seven grassroots troop support organizations met here yesterday for the first of eight planned regional "America Supports You" summits.

America Supports You is a Defense Department outreach program designed to recognize citizens' support for U.S. servicemembers and their families.

The summits are designed to provide a venue for a two-way discussion about what is working well for support groups and what could work better. Tips to help the groups grow and improve their effectiveness are part of the focus as well, said Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, who oversees America Support You.

"You've been supporting our men and women in the military long before there was ever an America Supports You program," Barber said. "The purpose of America Supports You, remember, is for us to highlight what you do ... for us to help bring national visibility to your organizations."

To help achieve that goal, she discussed possible programs and partnerships that will bring focus to the work the groups do. For example, NASCAR's participation as an America Supports You corporate team member provides the opportunity to make the DoD program very visible on a national level.

Open discussion during the meeting highlighted challenges groups are facing and ways America Supports You can help them.

Postage costs turned up as a daunting issue for many groups that specialize in sending care packages to overseas deployed troops. Mary Harper, president and founder of Operation Shoebox, reported that her group spent nearly $14,000 on postage to ship more than 2,000 packages last month.

While noting the U.S. Postal Service is the cheapest method of shipping packages to servicemembers overseas, Harper said "anything (cheaper) than postal rates would help."

Other issues discussed included groups' visibility in local communities and ways to help fulfill requests that a particular group is ill-equipped to handle.

Vicki Sarracino, president of the Georgia chapter of Operation Homefront, said the opportunity to network with some other support groups would help with this issue.

Operation Homefront is a national network effort providing support for the nation's military families, ranging from donations of computers, furniture, baby items, to moving assistance, to offering monetary grants to needy families of deployed servicemembers.

Barber said the Defense Department is working to address groups' concerns, and that events like the summit make clearer the issues support groups face.

"Everything that we do, I hope you'll accept as our best efforts," Barber said, thanking the groups for what they do for servicemembers and their families. "We can't do it without you."

The representatives also received tips on working with media and managing their volunteers. Speakers on both topics made it clear that both areas are crucial to the organizations' success.

"The media is a very important grassroots tool," said Jorge Martinez from Susan Davis International public relations firm. "Effectively reaching out to the media helps increase awareness for your respective activities and the work that you do.

"Increased media attention will ... help provide more funds and attract more people to your groups."

Martinez presented the attendees with strategies for getting their messages out and cultivating relationships with the media.

Susan Langlie addressed the issue of how to develop volunteers to their fullest potential. Langlie, the director of student ministries at a church in the Washington metropolitan area, works with about 3,000 volunteers who help in a program serving nearly 2,000 children a weekend.

She pointed out that volunteers want to serve a purpose greater than themselves.

"You're visionaries for giving them that opportunity," Langlie told summit attendees. "The highest calling of leadership is the growth and potential of your volunteers."

This is done primarily through communication, she said. She outlined critical elements in developing volunteers to become assets:

- Make sure they know and understand the group's vision;
- Ensure they get encouragement and feedback; and
- Work to put the right person in the right job.

After the summit ended, group members toured the CNN building and attended a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus show. Ringling became an America Supports You corporate team member in December.

The next regional summit is scheduled for Feb. 17 in New York.