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Danielle Wagoner, mother of Connor, front, and Patrick, on the trampoline, supervises her boys during playtime Monday morning. Six months ago the twins, now 2, were diagnosed with autism. It was nearly impossible for Wagoner, wife of Army Capt. Ian Wagoner, to run errands, and the stress of trying to was wearing her down. But a program funded by the Army Family Covenant takes the children off her hands twice a week so she can take care of errands, such as grocery shopping and banking.

Danielle Wagoner, mother of Connor, front, and Patrick, on the trampoline, supervises her boys during playtime Monday morning. Six months ago the twins, now 2, were diagnosed with autism. It was nearly impossible for Wagoner, wife of Army Capt. Ian Wagoner, to run errands, and the stress of trying to was wearing her down. But a program funded by the Army Family Covenant takes the children off her hands twice a week so she can take care of errands, such as grocery shopping and banking. (Matt Millham / S&S)

Danielle Wagoner, mother of Connor, front, and Patrick, on the trampoline, supervises her boys during playtime Monday morning. Six months ago the twins, now 2, were diagnosed with autism. It was nearly impossible for Wagoner, wife of Army Capt. Ian Wagoner, to run errands, and the stress of trying to was wearing her down. But a program funded by the Army Family Covenant takes the children off her hands twice a week so she can take care of errands, such as grocery shopping and banking.

Danielle Wagoner, mother of Connor, front, and Patrick, on the trampoline, supervises her boys during playtime Monday morning. Six months ago the twins, now 2, were diagnosed with autism. It was nearly impossible for Wagoner, wife of Army Capt. Ian Wagoner, to run errands, and the stress of trying to was wearing her down. But a program funded by the Army Family Covenant takes the children off her hands twice a week so she can take care of errands, such as grocery shopping and banking. (Matt Millham / S&S)

Before the covenant, families such as the Wagoners were left to go it alone, and finding suitable care for some special needs children overseas wasn't always possible.

Before the covenant, families such as the Wagoners were left to go it alone, and finding suitable care for some special needs children overseas wasn't always possible. (Matt Millham / S&S)

Patrick and Connor Wagoner are a handful — more so than your average 2-year-old twins.

Both were diagnosed with autism six months ago.

That explained a lot about their behavior, but didn’t make trips to the bank or commissary any easier for their mom, Danielle. The boys were getting older, bigger, rowdier and more unmanageable.

Just when things were really bad, the Army stepped in to help.

A few months earlier the money to help wouldn’t have been there, and the Army might not have even considered the Wagoners’ problems its business. But the Army Family Covenant — a promise made by Army leaders in October to improve quality of life in the service — has channeled millions of dollars into family programs, much of it in the form of discounts and free services for child care and children’s activities.

And while it’s doled out usually in small doses, such as cutting hourly child-care rates and giving free registrations for sports, the money adds up quickly. Across Europe, families have saved at least $1.8 million just by taking advantage of free and reduced-price day care and respite care, according to Installation Management Command Europe officials.

The Wagoners benefit from "Exceptional Family Member Program" respite care, which had been around for years on paper, but was never funded.

Now that it is funded, about 400 families have signed on for the free care, which can take different forms.

Most people use the time to take a break, "but I use it for getting everything else done — grocery shopping, doctor’s appointments, things like that," said Danielle, wife of Capt. Ian Wagoner. "It’s really impossible for me to bring my two boys to do anything like that, and my husband works all day."

Since November, the Army in Europe has spent some $800,000 providing about 16,000 hours (up to 40 hours a month) in free care for families with qualifying "exceptional family members," according to Lynn McCollum, Installation Management Command-Europe’s Army Community Service director. About 16 percent of Army families in Europe have an exceptional family member — a broad-brush term that can include someone with anything from asthma to paralysis, from autism to cancer.

"It’s just taken a lot of stress away," Danielle Wagoner said.

While adjusting to the covenant hasn’t been a cakewalk for Army organizations, which have had to change their accounting and reporting to track the costs of covenant benefits, it’s obvious that many Army families are benefiting from the initiative.

Families of deployed soldiers saved nearly $1 million in child-care costs — on top of the exceptional family member respite care — from February to April, said Cherri Verschraegen, the Child and Youth Services program manager for the Army in Europe. "That’s a million bucks back in their pockets," she said.

Most of that $1 million in savings was spread over a handful of garrisons hardest hit by deployments, such as Ansbach, Vilseck and Baumholder, Germany, and Vicenza, Italy.

Baumholder, home of the now deployed 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, spent $173,000 in the last three months covering the costs for free and reduced care, for keeping child-care facilities open extra hours, and for free classes and sports registrations, according to Jason Kearney, the garrison’s deployment specialist. About 90 percent of the post’s soldiers are deployed, he said.

Kearney’s position itself was created out of covenant funding as a means for garrisons hardest hit by deployments to coordinate and manage how CYS delivers on the Army’s promises.

Since the covenant, registration for SKIES classes — courses on everything from guitar to swimming to language or theater — have about doubled at Baumholder, Kearney said. The reason is simple: Children get up to four free classes per deployment.

Some of the classes — piano, for example — are pretty expensive, and "people are a lot more willing to give it a try if it’s free for the first four months," he said.

Across Europe, children signed up for $78,000 worth of free SKIES classes from February through April at an average price of about $85 each, according to Verschraegen.

And with the extra funding, CYS has been able to keep its centers open longer and on weekends. But finding the staff to man the centers is taking its toll, particularly in communities like Baumholder, where all but a few of the staff are themselves Army spouses wrestling with deployments.

"We’re working very hard to offer all these extra incentives and all these extra programs to make the lives of the spouses easier, and at the same time we have to use spouses to do that," so the people working at a child-care center on a Saturday aren’t going to be able to use the free day off other spouses get, Kearney said.


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