December 22, 2012 8:18:14 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Sometimes you just need a little something to hang on to, especially at Christmas time. For the children and spouses of deployed airmen from Columbus Air Force Base, that tangible, squeezable something might be a HUG -- a Huggable Uniform Gift bearing the image of a loved one who is serving far from home this holiday.
For months, staff and volunteers at the CAFB Airman and Family Readiness Center have been making the stuffed figures for families who remain behind.
"It's simply a way to stay connected when family members are far apart," said AFRC Director Laura Clagg Tuesday at her office. She was surrounded by sewing machines and cut swatches of cloth, pinned and ready for stitching and stuffing. "Extended separation is difficult on everyone involved, and the HUG provides something that brings comfort."
The process is straightforward. A full-length photograph of the deploying service member is transferred to cloth. Then, cut-outs are backed with donated camouflage uniforms or flight suits that are no longer serviceable.
"We try to match the backing to the airman," said Clagg. "If mom or dad is a pilot, for example, we use a flight suit for the back."
When the program began, Clagg and staff member Sharon Nichols brought their personal sewing machines to work to get the project off the ground. More than 100 stuffed HUGs later, the center has acquired machines, as well as a team of volunteers to assist in assembly and sewing. (The AFRC will also put a family portrait on a pillow case for airmen to take with them on their deployment or remote tour.)
Second Lt. Courtney Gallagher of Bensalem, Pa., finds satisfaction in assembling the HUGs.
"This helps lessen the separation (for families); it's always tough and anything that helps is important," she said Tuesday.
The biggest reward for AFRC staff and volunteers may be the reactions of children who receive a HUG and wrap their arms around that image of dad or mom.
"They're pretty excited; they run around with them, hugging them," smiled Second Lt. Andrew J. Wilson. The St. Louis, Mo., native also helps make and distribute the stuffed figures.
Spouses have at times been brought to tears when receiving their HUG, Clagg added.
The director noted that very young children separated from a parent for a long period occasionally have trouble immediately reconnecting when their mother or father come home.
"It's really unfortunate, but they sometimes don't recognize the returning parent, which is very disheartening," Clagg noted. "For those children, to have something to hold, to touch, to keep with them, can sometimes help them remember."
The larger mission
Supporting CAFB families with HUGs is just another way the Readiness Center administers to the diverse needs of military life year-round.
The center is a one-stop resource for reliable information and assistance on a wide spectrum of issues ranging from child care and financial planning, to family readiness at deployment and even transitioning out of the service. A variety of programs, services and resources are available for base personnel, their dependents and local retirees. The staff has already assisted more than 55,000 people this year.
"We're here for all stages of military life, from the beginning of your career to the end of your career -- and even beyond, into retirement," Clagg remarked.
Work on the HUGs program is ongoing. The staff is putting effort into getting several finished for airmen deploying soon. The huggable stuffed "dolls" will be welcome, especially at Christmas. As Clagg affirmed, "Sometimes you just need a little something."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.