Helping an active-duty service member feel at home, even when they’re not — that’s the slogan behind the new Operation Homeport, a program where single unaccompanied Sailors at Naval Air Station Patuxent River can be sponsored by host families in the local community.
“The purpose of this program is to give our junior Sailors something to do and somewhere to go,” said Lt. Helen Teague, N9 deputy director and host family program director. “We want to introduce them to people who can provide friendship and be positive role models. We want to create a program and an environment in which they can prosper, have fun and relax.”
By opening their homes, host families in the community can demonstrate their support and appreciation and will have the opportunity to meet some of the young men and women who choose to serve in today’s Navy.
For Sailors, the program will provide friendship and positive reinforcement outside the gates of Pax River, exposing them to family life and encouragement at a time in their lives when their own families may be far away.
NAS Executive Officer Capt. Heidi Fleming knows the experience firsthand, having participated in the U.S. Naval Academy’s Sponsor Program when she was a midshipman.
“Unless I had another obligation, I spent nearly every weekend at my sponsor family’s home,” Fleming said. “I’d go out on their boat, work in their yard, watch TV, order pizza, rent movies, study or just hang out. It was a great way to decompress. It was truly my home away from home during my midshipmen days. I still see them as family.”
Fleming also called the program a “great mentoring tool” by giving a Sailor someone to talk with who has an objective opinion.
Yeoman 3rd Class Lashanda Watlington has already expressed interest in Operation Homeport. As the single mother of a 2-year old son whose nearest family is at least seven hours away, she sees the benefits the program can offer.
“Our shipmates are the closest thing we have to family, but they’re not always available,” she said. “This program will give me and my son something to look forward to; and someone to fill a void. It’ll be nice to feel connected.”
Watlington says she isn’t looking for anything special, just a loving family with whom she can sit back and relax sometimes; maybe attend church and share a few activities. And she hopes other Sailors will come aboard.
“I think [the program] will be successful if Sailors are open-minded enough to give it a try,” she said. “What’s the worst that can happen — they’ll have fun? Some people have family a lot farther away than mine. I think this can boost morale.”
Hosts must be at least 28 years old, live within 30 miles of the installation and commit to a few hours of program training to help them understand the Navy mindset. It will be necessary to fill out an application and supply personal information which will be used to conduct background checks through national, state and local agency and Naval Criminal Investigative Service databases on anyone in the home, 18 years or older.
There is a questionnaire about personal preferences — nonsmoker, sports and pastimes, religious affiliation, etc. Sailors will likewise complete an application and every attempt will be made to successfully match both parties.
“We want to match like-minded people with similar interests,” Teague said. “We want things to evolve naturally.”
Military families can also host a Sailor, but must have the rank of E-7 or O-3 and above.
“There is no pressure and not a lot of money has to be spent,” Teague said. “We’re just looking for people who are willing to include a Sailor in their lives and maybe take them somewhere once in a while so that they aren’t sitting at home alone.”
To kick things off and ease the families and Sailors into the program, Teague plans a few organized meet and greets up front for everyone to come together and get to know each other in a group setting.
“Like any new program, it will start off small and build over the years,” she said.
Fleming, who is still in touch with her sponsor family, urged young Sailors to give it a try, saying, “It’s a tremendous opportunity that I would not pass up.”