JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. – It never rains in the Pacific Northwest on July 23. Debra Calkins will assure you that’s a fact – or at least it has been for the past 37 years.
Because her 37-year-old best friend’s birthday has never seen anything but sunshine, Calkins, the outreach coordinator for Lewis-McChord Communities, will always plan important events on that day, if she can help it.
This year showed no deviation from her tradition.
“I always plan an event on her birthday,” said Calkins, a Barstow, Calif., native. “Every year, we have an event on the 23rd if it’s on a weekend. [This year] It wasn’t so pretty the day before, but I knew it would be July 23.”
But one thing Calkins will always put more stock in than her faith in good weather for the 23rd day of July is family. That’s why she set aside the day – one sure to be nice – for Lewis-McChord Communities’ annual barbecue at Eagleview Community Center on Lewis-North, an event with a simple purpose: treating service members and their families who live on post to a cost-free day of fun while allowing them to build friendly bonds with others.
“To me, there’s nothing greater than family,” Calkins said. “And these are families that are a portion of the legs on which the country that I live in stands on.”
The event treated families to a wide variety of food and games, temporary tattoos for the children, and raffle prizes.
Providing an outlet for the military families on JBLM, no matter how great or small, isn’t just a job for Calkins – it’s personal.
A military child from a quintessential military family, her father retired from the Army when she was young, she said.
“My father was Army, my cousins were all Air Force and Navy, my uncle was a Marine,” she explained.
Because of this, she said, it’s easy to relate to military families.
Lewis-McChord Communities, which has been partnered with JBLM for more than eight years and is owned by Equity Residential, the largest civilian property management group in the U.S., oversees all housing on the entire installation.
Each year, the housing community puts on at least six major events and six major engagements for its residents – essentially anyone who lives on the installation – but it doesn’t stop there.
Calkins cited things as simple as handing out cards to children on Valentines Day and candy on Halloween, and larger-scale, annual events like a barbecue, military spouse appreciation dinner and mass game of bingo.
Lewis-McChord Communities also puts together game night baskets for each redeploying service member, containing a wide array of classic board games, and baby baskets for new mothers that each includes a limited supply of all the necessary baby items and even a kit to mold the baby’s handprint.
It’s the job of Calkins and the rest of her outreach department to arrange each event and engagement for the joint base’s residents, an eager initiative with only one focus in mind.
“Our goal is to keep the families engaged not only with each other but with the people who control the housing,” she said. “We do anything that will improve the relationship between housing and our residents, but we also help create the bridge between families.”
That’s a bridge Diana Grigsby, whose husband will soon deploy from JBLM for the third time in the last five years, is grateful to have.
“I’m having a hard time dealing with this deployment coming up, but I know on the other hand I’m going to be supported,” said Grigsby, a Livermore, Calif., native. “I look forward to the events coming up, and I know I’ll be taken care of.”
Grigsby, a mother of two daughters, ages 2 and 5, is a member of the Lewis-McChord Communities spouses club, which meets once a month and works on crafts together. She also makes sure she’s a part of every engagement.
“[The events] give spouses something to do to get their minds off the hard times,” she said. “You’re ripped away from your family, so this way you have something to lean on.”
“Lewis-McChord Communities is just so giving,” Grigsby added. “I’m grateful they take care of us.”
Her husband, Sgt. Jonathon Grigsby, a satellite signal support specialist with 513th Transportation Company, 593rd Sustainment Brigade, is thankful for that, too.
“When I leave, I don’t have to worry about my family not having things to do while I’m gone or not having anyone when they need something,” said Sgt. Grigsby, a Tracy, Calif., native.
Calkins said the turnout for the events has grown immensely in the past couple of years due to a ramp-up in advertising them, whether it be over the internet or in person.
This year, she said, the department sent out postcard invites to the barbecue to each residence on the installation and physically went into each housing development to spread the word, but also to put a face with the housing office’s voice.
“We get out there and build those relationships,” she said.
And even with only two years on the job, it’s certain Calkins is the right person for it.
“I was meant to do this,” Calkins said. “I love to watch families come together.”
In a place where watching families come together is exactly what she’s done the past couple of years, she’s seen baby-sitting relationships developed, new friendships built, and old friends reconnect.
It’s a place where troops and their families can make lifelong friends, like the friend Calkins made 11 years ago – her best friend, and the first person to in Washington state to really talk to her.
Eleven years down the road, it’s the person whose birthday has given her a bearing for good weather in the month of July.