Dept. of Military Affairs: Serving Those Who Serve: Service Member Support Division Part 1 – Family Program

The majority of the Wisconsin National Guard’s Service Member Support Division (SMSD) relocated to a new location earlier this year, ultimately facilitating collaboration to provide Department of Defense service members, veterans, civilians and their families with access to comprehensive Wisconsin services and Resources that meet their needs.

The SMSD consists of a variety of programs and goals, including soldier and family preparedness, yellow ribbon rehabilitation, sexual assault prevention and response, and warrior resilience and fitness.

The Wisconsin National Guard Family Program supports Soldiers and their families, ensuring they have the right tools and resources to meet the challenges of military lifestyle. Families are the enduring foundation for service members who tend to stay at home while their loved one is away on training or on a deployment in support of their state or nation.

“We know that especially with the younger Soldiers, and I think all Soldiers together, if there are stressors at home, they won’t be able to focus on the mission,” said Carina Sween, the Soldier’s supervisor and Family Readiness teams as part of the family program.

Soldier and Family Preparedness Teams are available 24 hours a day to assist Wisconsin service members and their families with any challenges they may face.

There are 10 Soldier and Family Preparedness Teams located in Family Support Centers at eight armories statewide. Each team supports approximately 10 Wisconsin National Guard units. The teams have a proactive mission—training volunteers, briefing sessions, sharing information with family members—and a reactive mission, responding to requests for resources, information, and recommendations.

“Our goal is really to make sure that anyone supporting a Soldier has access to resources and programs that can provide assistance — maybe financial assistance, domestic violence, child and youth services — so that a Soldier really does show up at a drill weekend and get involved can focus on whatever their responsibilities are this weekend,” Sween said.

One of the most widely used resources within the family program is the Military Family Financial Aid (MFFA). MFFA is a grant program designed to assist service members who are experiencing financial hardship. Funding comes from Wisconsin state taxpayers who choose to donate on their state tax returns.

“It’s a lot of paperwork, but for a service member who’s really struggling financially, it’s a really great resource when all else has run out,” said Debbie Sohns, family programs specialist and director of MFFA inquiries.

Before service members get to the point where they request financial assistance from MFFA, Soldier and Family Preparedness Specialists work with the service member and personal financial advisors to assess whether there are other ways to mitigate the situation and to solve the matter.

Another initiative that the family program has been working on for five or six years is a domestic violence reporting program. Historically, domestic violence reported through the family program has been reported down the service member’s chain of command, which can be dangerous for the victim if the service member is the perpetrator.

The Wisconsin National Guard now offers confidential or command notification reporting options for victims of domestic violence. Confidential reporting gives adult victims access to services while giving them additional time to develop safety plans before involving civilian law enforcement or the chain of command. The reporting of command notifications allows adult victims to report abuse and triggers a chain of command notifications through the state Office of Family Programs.

“We’re really just looking for reassurance or hope that more people will actually report domestic violence so we can help them,” said Lisa Klütz, the director of the state’s family program.

The family program is not a 24-hour hotline. They refer to local law enforcement or advocacy services within the community. Victims of domestic or intimate partner violence who are in imminent danger should contact 9-1-1 for help.

Service members and families may contact the Family Program with questions, concerns, or needs.

“No matter the situation, there is always someone who can help and there is no shame in asking,” Sohns said.

Another important part of the family program is the children and youth program. The Wisconsin National Guard Children and Youth Program provides programs and events that support the social, emotional, physical, and family well-being of military youth.

The children and youth program hosts a variety of events across the state, including an overnight camp, a day camp, and one or two virtual events each quarter. Programs and activities are generally available for children aged 6 to 17.

The best-known overnight camp is the annual Badger Youth Camp. This year’s Badger Youth Camp was held July 7-10 at Camp Lakotah. The children were divided into age groups and participated in activities like kayaking, paintball and archery while learning resilience skills and connecting with other military youth.

“What we’re trying to create is a space in the community for youth associated with the military, because unlike active duty, they’re spread across the state with the National Guard so they go to school and maybe the only duty.” connected youth there that they are aware of,” said JD Engelhardt, the senior coordinator of the children and youth program.

Day camps are open to the whole family and offer fun activities and resources. During Military Child Month this past April, the children and youth program partnered with the A&A All The Way Foundation for an event at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Families participated in a variety of crafts and activities, toured the stadium and met Aaron and Alvin Jones, who spoke about their experiences growing up in the military.

“This is a perfect example that we’re going to bring these kids together, we’re going to do some things [master resilience training] Do something with the parents on the side, where they have the opportunity to talk about what it’s like to be parents in uniform,” said Engelhardt.

Virtual programs began as the COVID-19 pandemic hit Wisconsin, limiting opportunities to host in-person events. They kept military youth connected and engaged and continue to be a valuable asset to the program.

“[We’re] try to meet kids where they are and be open to a mental health conversation, a virtual camp or a virtual arts night,” Engelhardt said. “When a kid shows up, that’s important because that one kid has to be there. This one child is there for a reason.”

The children and youth program also has a State Teen Panel made up of children ranging from 8th grade through high school. The State Teen Panel meets monthly and has a quarterly camp. Panel members network with military youth from other states and also serve as an advisory board to the children and youth program, letting them know where they may be missing the mark or what they would like to learn more about.

“They wanted to learn more about finance,” said Emily Sorenson, coordinator of children and youth programs. “They wanted to learn more about military culture, deeper than what they already know. So we try to provide those resources for them and also try to do volunteer work.”

The children and youth program also starts a state children’s committee for young people in the 4th to 7th grades who are associated with the military. The State Kids Panel will meet virtually twice between January and August and will have an in-person event. The kids learn more about what is happening in the state youth advisory board and can advise the state youth advisory board.

The various programs provide a safe space for youth to discuss what it is like to be a military kid and to overcome unique challenges.

“Even if they know what parents do, even if they know their parents have an office job, they still know what media is showing them what the military is, and of course missions and things like that change,” Engelhardt said. “Children are fully aware of this. You ask the questions. Even if they don’t ask the questions, they ask us the questions because they are concerned and concerned.”

If you are a member of the Wisconsin military service or family member who needs assistance or would like to find out about upcoming events, you can access the Service Member Support Division website at www.wisconsinmilitary.org or the 24/7 support hotline call 1-800-292-9464 (option 1).

“We will serve everyone,” said Kluetz. “We will not turn anyone away and we will provide information, resources and recommendations.”

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