By Elaine Wilson, AFPS
Nov. 23, 2009
I sat in the Army Strong Community Center in Rochester, N.Y., for hours, eating left-over Halloween candy.
I watched as a young military wife, still in her teens, walked in confused and nearly in tears about her military benefits.
I looked on as a military retiree pleaded for help with his health care.
Although they didn’t appear to have much in common, both left with feelings of gratitude for the staff after receiving personalized care at the center.
“The service is really great here,” said John van Hooydonk, the retiree. “They solved all my problems.”
The Army Reserve established the center, dubbed a “virtual installation,” about a year ago to offer information and resources to military families who live far from the support of a large military installation. I first blogged about my visit to the center Nov. 20. Here’s a link to that entry complete with video: Center Offers ‘Personal Touch.’
Officials picked Rochester for the first center’s site due to its distance from a large military installation – the closest being Fort Drum, N.Y., about 120 miles away – and for its significant military family population. Many military families reside in the area, including spouses who want to live near the support of families and friends, military retirees, parents of military members, and military members’ relatives and friends. More centers are planned around the country.
The center’s two-person staff is dedicated to helping them all with any need they may have, whether it’s Tricare, child care, car repair or just a shoulder to cry on.
The day I was there, 19-year-old Rachel Racicot showed up with her friend, Brittany Murphy, looking for assistance with her military ID card and Tricare. Her husband was away in Marine basic training and she was 27 weeks pregnant without health insurance.
Her husband’s recruiter had sent her over to the center.
“I tried to look up information on the computer, but it was so confusing,” she told Marianne Sernoffsky, the center’s manager. Sernoffsky took the time to explain Tricare, helped her get an ID card and made sure Rachel was ready for an upcoming medical appointment.
Click on the video below to see Racicot’s questions and Sernoffsky’s response.
“I didn’t know what do to,” Racicot said. “Now you’re not alone,” Sernoffsky reassured her.
Sernoffsky and her assistant, Michele Zelaya, spend long hours ensuring military families feel cared for. They work to build partnerships out in the community so they can feel confident sending military families to use community services. They often visit places like child care facilities and doctors’ offices to make sure they pass muster.
“The Rochester community really embraces the military but doesn’t always know what do to help,” Zelaya said. “We help them by giving them an outlet for their good wishes.”
She said an electrician offered to work for the cost of parts.
“I love my job,” Zelaya said. “I never know what I’m going to be doing. I recently worked with a disabled vet who needed a bed frame. I feel like I’m making a difference every single day.”
Zelaya wasn’t in the military, but has a deep connection to it. A row of pictures lines the top of her filing cabinet: her father, grandfather and great grandfather in uniform; all served in time of war.
“It’s in my blood,” she told me.
Later in the day, Deana Giuliano stopped in. She started out as a client and turned into a volunteer after she saw the good being done there. Her husband, Army Pfc. Brian Giuliano, is stationed in Korea and she asked the staff’s help in moving herself and her kids there.
“They helped me get the paperwork filled out and sent in,” she said. “I’m just waiting for a response now.”
Click on the video below to see Giuliano’s questions and Sernoffsky’s response.
In the meantime, the mother of two helps out around the center by building folders, tidying up or helping to answer calls. She’s one of five volunteers in the busy center.
While the center was established by the Army Reserve, the staff helps servicemembers and their families from all branches, as well as the active and Reserve. In fact, of the more than 1,300 people the center has helped, more than 21 percent are active-duty Army family members.
It’s great to be able “to bring the different branches together, because we’re a team, we’re all in the military together,” Sernoffsky said. “No one has to be left out or left alone because we’re not near a big installation or base. So why not work as a team together?”
I expected mostly spouses and family members to visit the center, but many military retirees also stop by for information, Sernoffsky said, mostly seeking answers on Tricare.
Van Hooydonk and his wife, Nancy, visited the center to ask Sernoffsky questions about Tricare for Life. They said the military offers a plethora of computer-based assistance, but they don’t own a computer and, even if they had access, they are “computer illiterate.”
“There’s something to be said for face to face instead of being helped over the phone or on the computer,” Mrs. Van Hooydonk said. “It’s so good to have that immediate answer to your question and not hear, ‘I’ll get back to you.’ What a wonderful service.”
Sernoffsky said she’s happy to help.
“This isn’t a job to me; it’s part of my life,” Sernoffsky said. “I want to get up and go to work and help families. It doesn’t feel like work. Now, I just need more hours in the day.”
I was really blown away by the staff’s passion and dedication for helping others. They rarely work 9-5, opting to work 12 hour days, all in the quest to help military families.
For more on the community center read these American Forces Press Service articles:
‘Virtual Installation’ Brings Support to Military Families
‘Virtual Installations’ May Be Key to Gold Star Outreach