Investment in the future

  • Published
  • By Lt.Col. Neil Woods
  • 71st Flying Training Wing chief of safety
On Jan. 17, I had a chance to look the future in the eyes, and those eyes were set with a determination that gives me a lot of hope about where this nation is heading.

I had the opportunity to speak in Enid to Monroe Elementary' s fourth and fifth grade students as part of the Drug Awareness Resistance Education graduation ceremony. The ceremony was a great reminder of how important it is for military and other community professionals to invest in our nation's kids. That investment can help unlock the potential they have to become future leaders with the right moral compass and discipline it will take to keep America strong and free.

The graduating DARE kids committed themselves to staying drug-free, developing strong character and making wise choices as they continue to grow, but they'll need our help. Kids need heroes, and they'll choose from among those personalities most prominent in their world. Left without boundaries and exposed to the personalities they see on TV, in video games or on the internet, they are likely to choose heroes that lead them to a warped sense of reality and morality. That's where Team Vance can help to turn the tide.

Military news stories from Iraq and Afghanistan often feature adopt-a-school programs and describe the great sense of satisfaction military members receive as they repair facilities and receive cheers from excited kids. Many say it's what makes the deployed mission worth it all. Now Team Vance has a similar opportunity to adopt schools right here in Enid through the Adopt-a-School initiative introduced last week.

Whether it's taking part in school grounds improvement projects, tutoring kids or just spending a little time sharing career experiences, our involvement in local schools will go a long way to turn high risks into big gains. As busy as we all stay executing the mission here at Vance, having a big pool of volunteers will be crucial to share the load and make sure we give our best effort to another vitally important mission in our community.

Kids have great respect and admiration for men and women in uniform. They recognize the uniform as a symbol of pride, of great achievement and a commitment to excellence. They want that for themselves, and when a military member invests a little time to bring what the uniform represents to a kid's world, the result is a boost in self-esteem, motivation to reach full potential and hope for a brighter future.

The task for the volunteers is critical because the facts are staggering. I have been working with kids in various church and community-based programs since I was 16, but I have not seen the level of risk to children, on a broad scale, as high as it is right here in our local communities. And that surprises me, considering the state's conservative history and its popular claim to be the "Buckle of the Bible Belt."

Oklahoma exceeds the national rate in many key risk indicator categories, including children living in poverty, children living in single parent families and children living in families where no parent has full-time, year-round employment. Additionally, eight years after former Governor Frank Keating, declared war on the state's No. 2-in-the-nation divorce rate, Oklahoma statistics still hover in the top five. The effect of broken homes, uncommitted relationships and irresponsible parental behavior continues to make an indelible imprint on kids.

For a variety of reasons, there are also very few parental volunteers in most local schools -- fewer than I've seen anywhere the Air Force has assigned me. Many parents are working more than one job just to keep food on the table, and many are single parents with many mouths to feed. Additionally, some parents take the attitude that teachers are solely responsible for their kids' education, and those kids receive little, if any help at home. However, teachers can't do it alone, and when parents and other adult volunteers do take a vested interest in mentoring and caring about children, the impact is amazing. The kids light up, they are motivated to achieve, and they cheer for those dedicated volunteers when they pass them in the hall. They even step out of line to give and receive a hug. It may be the only one they've had all week.

As I told the Monroe's fifth grade DARE graduates, America's enemies in the War on Terror are hoping our kids will fail. They will patiently wait and hope the internal fiber of our nation will crumble and leave us vulnerable as we raise a generation who no longer understands what it takes or how big the stakes in the fight for freedom are. As representatives of America's strength we can give them an example to succeed by and receive great rewards, now and in the future.