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Ken White, IMCOM-Europe Public Affairs
HEIDELBERG, Germany - Spurred by increased funding received under the Army Family Covenant, your installation Army Community Service will now be fully staffed for the first time in recent memory, and better prepared than ever to serve the needs of commanders, Soldiers and Families. But ACS needs you to cast a vote ... with your feet.
"We challenge our community - from the single Soldier, to the young married spouse, to that company commander - to walk in the door and see for themselves everything ACS has to offer," said Lynn McCollum, ACS director of Installation Management Command-Europe. "The Covenant has given us the tools to serve them, but it takes that Soldier or spouse taking the time to walk in the door to open their eyes to the world of possibilities available to them."
When Gen. George Casey Jr., Army chief of staff, and his wife first set to work on a way to redouble the Army's commitment to Families that had become strained to the breaking point from the effects of protracted combat operations on the force, those possibilities were seemingly endless. But the voices of Soldiers spoke loud and clear: "Don't give us more programs, just staff the programs you have in place and deliver them."
"When [Casey] first announced the Covenant, one of the points he made was that we are building on our existing programs, expanding our existing programs, rather than creating more," said McCollum. "We have great things already in place [under the Covenant], we just needed to make sure they are funded and provided to standard. We haven't always done that."
Historically, ACS had delivered valuable programs - Army Volunteer Corps; Army Family Action Plan; Army Family Team Building; Exceptional Family Member Program; Family Advocacy; and Relocation Readiness, Deployment Readiness, Financial Readiness, and Employment Readiness - but there was one impediment to their ability to meet the needs of Army Families.
"One of their [garrison ACS] biggest challenges has always been staffing," said McCollum. "When you talk about the 'rightsizing' of ACS, we've always had a requirement for additional positions, but we also haven't had the funding to meet that requirement," she related.
Army Family Covenant funding spurred immediate corrective action across Europe.
"We knew what we needed even before the Covenant, so there was no hesitation when it was announced," she said. "With the full support of Mr. [Russell] Hall [director of IMCOM-Europe], we moved to hire 74 more people in the ACS centers necessary to bring ACS staffing to 100 percent across Europe, even though the actual money for the positions came later," she emphasized.
What does that mean to the Soldier and his or her family? When Army Families heard that $1.5 billion was being put toward the Covenant, what did that really mean to the average Soldier or spouse?
"For ACS, customers typically walk in, and expect to be seen," she related "And that is what ACS is all about - it's helping people. You're either in some kind of counseling sessions or some kind of classroom setting, and you can provide more and better customer service if you have adequate staff. "They do not want to have to wait or have a delay for an appointment time," she said.
"The bottom line is that they should receive better service," McCollum stressed, referring to increased responsiveness that continues to come from being able to hire and pay more ACS staff due to the Covenant. "They have someone to go in and talk to, whether it is for an exceptional family member, or whether it be additional support for the deployment program."
"For commanders, having more people optimizes our accessibility and our responsiveness to their needs - from the Family Readiness Group and other pre-deployment/redeployment training, to rear detachment and financial readiness training," she added.
Bottom line for the customer is that ACS will now have staff more readily available to work with folks when they come in the door.
McCollum stressed that Soldiers and Families can expect to see continued growth in responsiveness to their needs as ACS centers receive the full benefit of the additional hiring authorized under the Covenant; a process that can be time-consuming given it may take months to recruit a qualified candidate to Europe from stateside.
When the Covenant was announced, ACS directorates at each garrison reviewed their shortfalls - which positions they did not have filled - and aligned their needs to build staffing in areas where the need was most critical to service a certain population in need at a particular garrison. McCollum said those garrisons that serve communities with higher a number of deployments - such as Vicenza, Grafenwoehr, Schweinfurt, Baumholder, Wiesbaden - were all high priorities, and all received additional staff, in addition to most garrisons across Europe.
"The ACS directors at all the garrisons are working it hard," she said. If you talk to any of them [ACS directors] they are very appreciative in getting additional staff, and they will send me their requirements in doing a better job with customer and working with Soldiers and families. It takes people to that."
The additional staffing also has another often overlooked benefit.
"They will be working less overtime," she admitted. "For a lot of the current [ACS] staff, a lot of them are family members as well; they have spouses who are deployed; and they have children - so if they can work a regular work day, that is a positive thing for them."
Beyond staffing, bottom-line dollars from the Covenant are also having a big impact on Families in Europe, particularly those feeling the strain of persistent deployments over many years.
One notable example is in the area of Exceptional Family Member Respite Care, where you're caring for a child with an exceptional or special need, something that wasn't funded for previously. The program is offered in a variety of ways: through use of CYS facilities, a Family Childcare Provider, or even an individual provider on a reimbursable basis.
"There has always been recognition that it's a need, but last year was the first time we received any funding for it," she said. "For this year, we're investing almost $900,000 in Europe to allow families with exceptional family members or children or family member with special needs to obtain respite care, to give them a break, an opportunity to put wind back in their sails," she said.
With an improved responsiveness the Covenant has made possible - and enhanced delivery of services that additional funding has allowed at European garrison ACS centers - Soldiers and their Families are encouraged to take up the challenge to visit their local ACS, where they stand to benefit directly from ACS's commitment to making a world of difference. And they can continue to see ACS leaning forward to meet their needs.