USS IWO JIMA, Arabian Gulf --
USS IWO JIMA, Arabian Gulf (Feb. 16, 2009) – More than a name change, Part 1
discussed the Marine Corps' implementation and funding of the new Family Readiness Program, including hiring a professional Family Readiness Officer. 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit Commander Col. Mark Desens stressed the purpose of the program is to support combat readiness. And longtime volunteer Janice Capdepon shared her experiences with family programs from the 80s to today.
As with any new program, Desens said making the transition can be difficult, particularly when Marines and families are used to the old system.
"It's not as easy as flipping a switch," Desens said. Hanging on to past experiences can hinder a leader’s understanding and proper utilization of the new program, he said.
"This is different," Desens continued. "It's not Key Volunteers Network. This is professional information, resource and referral. The FRO is a member of your staff, a key leader in ensuring your command is prepared – just like your adjutant or your logistics officer."
A new paradigm
"We were trying to put into practice what hadn't completely gotten written into policy," said 26th MEU FRO Kelly Cotton. "And quite honestly, were all still trying to wrap our hands around some of the new paradigm. This was more than a name change, but I don't think any of us (FRO, command team or assistants) realized how much more until we began working through the new paradigm," she said.
"This is a clean break from the KVN," said Desens. "The new FRP professionalizes family readiness within the operating forces by a wide variety of training, additional resources, budgets, equipment and a paid Family Readiness professional," he said.
"The key enabler," Desens continued, "of this new professionalized family readiness program is the hiring of full-time Family Readiness Officers with credentials and training commensurate with their responsibilities."
Desens said the emphasis the Marine Corps has placed in the new program is evident in appropriated funding and training. With a professional, paid FRO, the new paradigm allows commanders to fully integrate Family Readiness into staff planning and execution, creating a professional link between the command, immediate families, and extended families, he said.
Reweaving the social fabric
Janice Capdepon, involved with family readiness more than 28 years, said while she's glad to see the program move back to information and referral, there was great value to the social aspect developed with Key Wives and Key Volunteers.
"In my own experience it was other spouses who helped and assisted me when I was adjusting to Marine Corp life," explained Janice. She said impersonal modern communication cannot replace true social interaction.
Cotton agrees that innovations like the Mass Communication Tool, a new system for sending messages to families, are technological wonders, but are no substitute for true human interaction.
"Technology has done wonderful things for us," said Cotton. "But it can never replace the true sense of togetherness, friendship and camaraderie that comes through social gatherings. We always hear what a small "family" the Marine Corps is and how likely it is that you will cross paths again with someone you knew."
The new FRP has not neglected this important social aspect. Family events now have centralized planning and official budgets. Cotton has helped organize robust family events throughout the MEU's deployment. Fall saw MEU families at the Harvest Fest, bowling in November, and in December families attended a Holiday Party, complete with gifts and a visit by Santa and his elves. January offered both Spouses in the Midst (sponsored by MCFTB) and a bunco-game night.
Cotton teams with other FROs and MCFTB to get MEU children to "Kids N Deployment" and Return and Reunion workshops in preparation for the MEU's homecoming.
"Social interaction is one of the challenges of the new program I think commanders have to think hard about," said Desens. "I believe many spouses (and Marines) have a natural reluctance to call a FRO or Family Readiness Assistant they don't know and feel a connection to. Ideally, I'd like them to get to know their FRO and (Family Readiness Assistants) during the course of being involved in the "social fabric" of a command. This is where command-sponsored activities and Family Days are so important. Then, if they do need assistance, they are talking to someone they already know and trust."
"The slippery slope commanders have to watch for," Desens explained, "is to not allow your FRO - a professional staffer - become your social planner for activities outside of family readiness. In my opinion, that would be bad for the program."
"By professionalizing the FRP, we have not eliminated the 'social fabric' of the command," said Desens, "but only separated the purely social parts from the FRO’s responsibilities. The FRO still organizes command-sanctioned family functions. Private social functions are great, but they should be born from the relationships families build at family events like Return and Reunion classes, (Lifestyle Insights Networking Knowledge and Skills) and other command functions."
"We have always tried to make our events so good that Marines and their families will want to come be a part of the experience - that's our challenge," said Desens.
-- Continued in More Than a Name Change Part 3, which discusses hiring the right FRO and ensuring he is properly trained.