News: Program begins pen-pal campaign, 'adopting' 82nd CAB soldiers serving overseas
Story by Sgt. 1st Class Eric Pahon
FORT BRAGG, N.C. – Six soldiers of the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade received unexpected gifts this month of letters, pictures and an official “adoption” – just as they prepare to begin a year-long deployment in Afghanistan. The six, all single soldiers, except one, are part of a pilot program between the 82nd CAB and a peer support program for developmentally-challenged adults, run by the Highland Rivers Community Service Board in Cherry Log, Ga.
Highland Rivers calls their customers “consumers” instead of patients, and operates a peer support program to help people with mental disabilities live independent, regular lives. They typically focus on basic life skills, like cooking, personal hygiene and basic personal finance; all skills necessary to live independently, but got this program running because of the benefit it provides not only to their consumers, but to deployed soldiers who might not receive much in the way of care packages or mail while serving overseas.
“One of the things they’re [the Highland Rivers consumers] most interested in is helping others,” said Ms. Linda Garver, a Peer Support Program advisor with the Highland Rivers Community Service Board. “We thought this would give our people a chance to reach out to people they didn’t know, and really get the chance to touch someone else’s life.”
According to Garver, communication and socialization are two of the biggest issues support group members face. They’re learning skills difficult to replicate in a closed, controlled environment, like learning to communicate with someone they’ve never met before, then figuring out how to start a conversation and share ideas through the letters they write back and forth.
“Some of them have never written a letter before,” said Garver. “It was a challenge at first just figuring out what to say and what to do.”
The program is beginning small, with the six soldiers each receiving about three letters apiece, mostly because the unit and the staff at Highland Rivers are working out the logistics of getting letters and packages to the soldiers downrange, acting as intermediaries to respect the privacy of both soldiers taking part in the program and support group members, at least until they form relationships and get to know each other a little more.
Garver said she hopes the program will grow so more soldiers can receive mail, and others in the program can get involved.
“It will grow if they [the consumers] get responses back. That is going to be very important. A lot of these people don’t have anyone either. Some have family members involved, and some don’t. The key here is it’s a peer support program. They’re supporting each-other – very similar to what soldiers do in the field. We saw a similarity there, and thought this could really work,” said Garver.
Soldiers seem to really appreciate the program too, although since they weren’t told anything about the sponsorship or who was writing to them until they had letters in hand, the whole idea came as kind of a shock and took a moment to grasp.
“I got a letter, and the first thing I saw was a colored picture [of a butterfly], so I thought it was from an elementary school or something,” said Spc. Ashley Phillips, 24, of Maple Shade, N.J. “I opened the letter and saw the people ranged from 30-something to about 40, and I was shocked. I thought it was really interesting. Apparently three of them took turns and colored a portion of the butterfly. I really thought that was cool.”
Since the consumers of the Highland Rivers peer support program are working to solve problems often related to mental illness or mental disabilities, the letters are often simple, short and cover basic topics like favorite foods, music or movies – things soldiers find comfortable to talk about, taking their minds off the hectic, stressful business of being deployed to a combat zone.
“It’s always comforting to a soldier having someone in the states thinking about you and taking the time to get to know you,” said Spc. Nicole Cygan, of Holland, Mich. “I think it’s heartwarming. I enjoy stuff like that in my off-time. I think it’s just nice.”
For Pvt. Olivia Woodard, 21, of Tampa, Fla., the best part is knowing that she’s doing something good for people back home.
“It’s something I’ll look forward to,” said Woodard. “It makes their day. If I can write a letter and make someone’s day, then that makes me really happy. If I can make someone else smile, that will put a big smile on my face,” she said.
As the program progresses, Garver says she would like to find ways for some community organizations to donate items which the group can send as care packages for the soldiers, especially during the holidays.
For now, though, as these soldiers head off to war, the simple act of writing a short letter promises smiles for people dealing with difficult periods in their lives on both sides of the ocean.