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First lady Jill Biden tours JBLM: 'We want to know what's getting in your way'

First lady Jill Biden views a water activity table at the new children's museum at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Tuesday, March 9, 2021, in Washington state. Biden also visited with military families during her visit.

TED S. WARREN, AP/POOL

By ABBIE SHULL | The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.) | Published: March 9, 2021

TACOMA, Wash. (Tribune News Service) — First lady Jill Biden visited Joint Base Lewis-McChord on Tuesday, touting a relaunch of a military family outreach program she started during the Obama administration.

Biden toured the Children's Museum on JBLM with Gov. Jay Inslee and I Corps commander, Lt. Gen. Randy George. The museum is a joint effort between the base and Children's Museum of Tacoma and is set to formally open April 24.

The director of learning experiences at the museum, Alyssa Tongue, showed Biden the new water feature and a sensory exhibit and "calm room" designed for children on the autism spectrum.

It was Biden's first official trip as first lady and first trip to Washington state. In her remarks she said she was struck by the beauty of the state and was lucky to watch sunrise over Mount Rainier.

Biden's visit is part of an ongoing effort to relaunch Joining Forces, a program she started with former first lady Michelle Obama during the Obama administration. Biden said Joining Forces focused on employment, education and wellness programs for military families, and she hopes to continue those efforts while listening to the evolving needs of the families.

"How can we bring solutions to families across our country? The needs of military families constantly evolve and change," Biden said. "Your commander in chief and I — that's the first time I've said that — are here for you. We want to know what's getting in your way and what's working at places like JBLM."

Biden also met with representatives from the JBLM Center for Autism Resources and Education Services (CARES) program which supports families who have children or dependents on the spectrum. JBLM CARES is the only program of its kind in the Department of Defense, which has made the base home to the largest population of military dependents with autism.

62nd Airlift Wing Lt. Col. Rebecca Christi is a developmental behavioral pediatric fellow at Madigan Army Medical Center and the mother of two children with autism. Christi told Biden how JBLM's resources have made it easier for her children to receive specialized education that was unavailable at her previous duty stations.

Christi said she was glad Biden seems ready to focus on the needs of families with special needs children.

"We need to focus on sustaining the model that JBLM has provided," Christi said. "Getting appropriate classroom placement for my son has been essential."

Christi is also one of the parents who provided feedback to the children's museum on the design of the "calm room" and sensory exhibits.

Biden also spoke with representatives from the Exceptional Family Member Program on JBLM — which supports the medical and educational needs of military family members. Megan O'Day, the director of the program, said she was happy to relay the experiences of the military families she works with every day.

"I'm not relaying my story but to be able to relay the issues our military families have to the first lady is great," O'Day said.

Biden was particularly interesting in the individualized education plans the EFMP office helps with. The education plans are made for 4,000 children on JBLM with any learning disability, including autism or ADHD. The IEP's can provide an in-class assistant for a child or a specialized education program. O'Day pointed out to Biden those plans have to be remade every time a family moves to a new state. She said an interstate agreement for military families could make it easier for children to receive the best possible education.

"Right now, states dictate what tests they do or don't take," O'Day said. She added that she would like to see the Department of Education make a list of acceptable tests all states have to use.

Biden thanked the military families in attendance for being open and honest about their experiences.

"You've all been open with me and telling me about your struggles and triumphs, good and bad," Biden said. "So many Americans don't know what your lives are like and the struggles you face. You knew what you signed up for, but it shouldn't be harder than it needs to be."

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