One of the greatest sacrifices military members make is moving their families across the country every few years. Now in the midst of worldwide pandemic, life has become even more complicated. Thankfully, military and veteran families all around the nation and the world have an invaluable nonprofit organization to provide them with a multitude of support.
Founded by military spouses in 2009, Blue Star Families encompasses 11 chapters across the U.S., supporting military, national guard, reserve, and veteran families, and is funded by partners such as CSX. It has more than 150,000 members in its network and reaches over 1.5 million family members annually, according to the nonprofit. Blue Star Families “empowers military families to thrive by identifying military family challenges and implementing solutions, partnerships and connections to create a strong military community,” says the organization. Connecting members to their community includes free programs and events, free entrance to museums and parks, and career resources.
This September, Blue Star Families held a nationwide Welcome Week, which welcomed new members to chapter areas with free events, giveaways, and virtual surprises. In one National Capital Region giveaway, local chefs cooked professional meals for several active duty service members and their families. “Getting to enjoy a really nice, professionally cooked meal at home with my husband was such a great treat. In addition to a great meal, we were able to learn about fabulous restaurants in the area that we may not have heard about otherwise, and add them to our list of places to try,” said Tonya Murphy, the wife of Navy Commander Scotty Murphy.
National Capital Region Chapter Director Julie Riggs joined the team at Blue Star Families in January of this year. “The most rewarding part of working for Blue Star Families is knowing that the work we do drives real change. Blue Star Families helps military families overcome challenges and thrive in their communities where they serve,” said Riggs.
Through extensive research and program partnerships, the nonprofit designs programs that aid in solving challenges for military families. Programs include meeting economic needs by providing spousal career services, supporting caregivers, and welcoming military families into their new communities. The annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey is a key component in determining what military families need in their communities. These critical results are brought to the attention of local, national and military leaders — and they often drive future platforms.
“For example, according to the results from our 2019 survey, 45% of respondents ranked Military Spousal Employment as a top issue concerning military families. Through initiatives like our Military Spouse Careers Program and with the use of our SpouseForce platform, Blue Star Families connects candidates to our training and job placement partners,” said Riggs.
Murphy herself has gained invaluable insight from the SpouseForce program. “BSF’s employment assistance… is a service that I think every military spouse looking to freshen up their resume should take advantage of. They helped me translate much of the volunteer experience I have working with military organizations and families, and showcase the marketable skills I have developed through those experiences,” said Murphy.
As a result of the pandemic, Blue Star Families had to take a unique approach this year by introducing virtual programs. With parents struggling to balance work and children at home from canceled summer camps, the nonprofit creatively brought forth a solution for families. This summer, “Blue Star Summer Camp - the Home Edition!” was born as the nonprofit’s first virtual camp. “We answered the community’s need by developing a 4-week virtual summer camp with unique weekly themes — Scales and Tails, Aerospace Week, Branching Out, and History’s Mysteries. The turnout was amazing. We had over 3000 families sign up to attend,” said Vicky Perkins, senior manager for programs and engagement.
“We hosted (virtual) field trips twice a week, via Zoom, and they were wildly successful, valued by the museum staff and the participants,” said Perkins. Normally, apart of the Blue Stars Museums program, active duty military families are invited to visit thousands of participating museums for free each summer. In light of the pandemic, the nonprofit worked with Blue Star Museums partners, along with support from CSX, MetLife Foundation, Boeing, and the Department of Interior to provide virtual museum visits.
The museum initiative is an invaluable perk that has attracted military personnel to join Blue Star Families. It provides a great (free!) educational activity to strengthen families, as Jenny Werner can attest. “Life is expensive with children. I wanted something fun to do, so while living in San Diego in 2009, I drove to the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad and had a Mommy-Daughter Day with my oldest child,” said Werner, whose husband is Navy Captain Steven Werner.
Similarly, the Blue Star Parks program invites military members to thousands of parks and recreation sites for free annually. This summer, over 900 members logged onto 15 virtual park events nationwide. “Families got to ‘get away’ during the pandemic as they explored Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, White Sands National Park in New Mexico, and Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, just to name a few,” said Riggs.
Regardless of where service members move, the nonprofit tailors specific programs for each of the 11 chapters nationwide. Virtual programs implemented this year also included career events for military spouses, Mother’s Day Paint Night for National Guard Families, and Story Time with children’s book authors. “We also delivered solutions to our families, including Summer Fun Boxes, Chromebook and Facebook Portals to assist with online learning, and homemade mask distribution to our troops when those items were hard to find,” said Riggs.
The benefits from Blue Star Families continue to support the military community in a multitude of ways. Longstanding programs include Blue Star Neighbors, where civilians can support the military in communities nationwide; Blue Star Books events to encourage love of reading for kids; family book club projects; career networking; and Blue Star Networks Live! Webinars for professional and personal development, according to the nonprofit.
“The primary mission of Blue Star Families will always be to support military families and the different issues they face. In light of the pandemic and the challenges it has exacerbated, our next initiative will focus on equitable recovery beginning in mid-November. We look forward to engaging a diverse group of partners through our White Oak Collaborative in order to help families recover from this year of hardship," said Riggs.
“No matter where you live or how long you've lived there, BSF welcomes you like a next-door neighbor, offering uplifting and informative opportunities for the whole family,” added Werner.
Indeed, during these uncertain times, perhaps one of the greatest perks Blue Star Families offers to military families is a sense of belonging, stability, and community in a changed world.
For more information on Blue Star Families programs and resources, including free membership, please visit www.bluestarfam.org or contact your local chapter.