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Making Abilene a home, sweet home away from home for airmen

By BRIAN BETHEL | Abilene Reporter-News | Published: November 5, 2017

When William Stinson, 21, came to Dyess Air Force Base 13 months ago, he soon realized how far away from home he really was.

Thanksgiving rolled around, and Stinson, from Savannah, Georgia, recalls he felt "horrible."

"As far as that day, I didn't have anywhere to go, and I was by myself," he said. "Thanksgiving is usually a huge thing, where your family's all together and you're sitting at a table eating and having a good time. And here I was, just by myself."

It's a 14- to 16-hour drive to get home, Stinson said, and "you get homesick sometimes."

"I miss everyone -- my mom, my grandmom, my brothers and sisters, granddad, my uncles," he said.

He hadn't yet met Judy and Allan Farmer, two people he now considers family.

And he wasn't yet a part of Home Away From Home, a program that matches new airmen with families for both fun and support.

Situations like Stinson's are where Home Away From Home shines, Judy Farmer, said. The Farmers are among those who have so far stepped up to become volunteer families.

Now that they've been matched to the Farmers, Stinson and his friend, fellow airman and Home Away From Home pal Maleek Smiley, have somewhere in town to regularly go and things to regularly do.

They and the Farmers hang out several times a month, watch movies (most recently the "Lord of the Rings" films), go out to eat, talk and share thoughts and concerns.

"These young men and women are away from home, sometimes for the first time in their lives," Judy Farmer said. "We just want to reach out and be family to them."

Smiley, who came to Dyess at year ago last week from Brooklyn, and Stinson were already becoming fast friends when they and other first-term airmen heard about Home Away From Home.

"When I first got here to Dyess Air Force Base, I didn't know what my life would be like," Smiley said. "I think it's important that we have this program so we remember what it's like to have a family. When you're away from home you're not with your (loved ones) anymore. You're pretty much on your own."

Like Stinson, he recalled his first Thanksgiving here as bittersweet, missing his small family -- his mother and brother.

"My mother, that was her first Thanksgiving without either of her children," he recalled. "So, it was harder for her than it was for me."

Smiley remembers Facetiming his mother, who told him how proud she was of him and what she was doing.

"I missed her a lot during that time," he said, while he found Texas a new experience, vastly different than what he had known before.

He flew home to see his mother in May, but having the Farmers be here for him, to be forces of stability, help, and fun, has made an enormous difference, he said.

"It kind of helps me stay level," Smiley said. "I know that I have people who love and care for me here in this town, and it's not just I'm 1,000 miles away and I'm all alone. I'm not alone anymore."

For the Farmers, the reward is equal, if not greater.

"We think the world of them," Judy Farmer said. "They come over, we cook them meals, we take them out to dinner. We watch movies, we've invited them to church, just however we can be a part of their lives, and to just be able to have that home away from home."

Allan Farmer said that to him, the value of the program is simply apparent.

"They live in our community and they serve our nation and they defend our freedom, and they're a long way from home," he said, noting that "whatever us and the community at-large can do to help them feel more welcome, to help them feel a little more secure" was beneficial to all.

"I consider them my sons," he said. "I'm very proud of them, and I want them to know that."

Experiences such as Stinson and Smiley's with the Farmers are exactly why the organization exists, said former Dyess Air Force commander Michael Bob Starr, founder and board member of Abilene's Home Away From Home program.

Starr retired from the Air Force and stayed with his wife in Abilene, where today he is director of Global Samaritan Resources.

The program's goal is to match first-term airmen living in the dorms at the air base with Abilene families, he said.

"A first-term airman is what we call someone relatively new to the Air Force," Starr said. "They've been through basic training, they've gone to their follow-on training and then they get their first operation and first real assignment."

Those who typically fit in that mold are 18-20-years old when they first arrive, he said.

The program itself is modeled after one originally established at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City. That in turn is modeled on programs that exist at the nation's military academies, Starr said.

"It's almost like a dating service," he said. "We ask the airmen for their list of interests and preferences. We do the same for the families so we don't end up pairing dog people with cat people or Texas A&M fans with University of Texas fans. We don't want anything bad to happen like that."

Families are asked to host two airmen at minimum. Airmen room in the dorms in groups of three, so many roommates want to sign up together to be assigned to the same family, he said.

Volunteers are asked to do something with their airmen at least once a month for the length of their assignment in Abilene.

That can be inviting them over for dinner or a movie, or an activity out and about, such as the recent West Texas Fair & Rodeo.

"The airmen benefit, the families that host benefit, and I think the community benefits," Starr said.

The Air Force spends a good deal of time talking about "resiliency," Starr said, which "in plain English is the ability to cope with challenges."

"Heaven knows we throw a lot of challenges at these young men and women," he said. "So, having that local resource, someone to lean on, helps them cope better with life in general and just being a young person."

Many will be buying their own car for the first time, while some are going to live alone for the first time as they transition out of dorm life. Some are earning a paycheck for the first time, and need to learn about being financially wise.

"We were all young," Starr said. "They get some help coping with that stage of their life and the unique challenges of the Air Force. They also get exposed to some of the great things that West Texas has to offer."

Starr believes families should get an understanding of the Air Force mission at a much finer level.

Every time a B-1 or C-130 takes off, that event is preceded by "thousands of little events," he said.

"And the people doing those thousands of little events are your airmen," Starr said, from fuel truck drivers to cargo loaders to those who coordinate with the FAA for flight plans.

"They are very proud of what they do, and they're very good at what they do," he said. "And so I think the people who host will see a side of the Air Force that makes them appreciate what happens at Dyess even more."

The program had its initial run of airmen matched to families just before the holidays last year, but there are around 550 airmen who live in Dyess' on-campus dorms, said Judy Farmer, who in addition to being a volunteer is also now on the local nonprofit's board.

While not all of those personnel will want to be part of Home Away From Home, many do -- but can't, at least yet.

"We have so many airmen out there that want a family," Farmer said. "But we don't have the families."

At a recent board meeting, a goal was mentioned of getting 250 airmen adopted.

"We've only got like 10 right now, so we've got a long way to go," Farmer said. (And) that's why we have to get the word out."

Farmer, who serves on the Abilene Chamber of Commerce's Military Affairs Committee and was for two years an honorary Command Chief at Dyess, said that Abilene is both a caring community in general and one that cares about the base itself.

"I think we won't have a problem getting the people, they just need to know about it," she said.

Stinson and Smiley said they hoped more airmen could get the sort of help and support that they've found in their Home Away From Home family.

"Having a support system here in the palm of your hands to support you (in) anything you're going through, whether it be financial, emotional , or spiritual, you have that family outlet that you can go to at any point in time," Stinson said. "That gives a great feeling."

Smiley agreed, calling himself blessed to have a family such as the Farmers.

"If you're blessed enough to have a family like this, you'll never feel like you went away," he said. "You'll never feel like you left (home)."

(c) 2017 the Abilene Reporter-News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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