In 2017, Phyllis Fitzgerald of Junction City started the Flint Hills Home Away From Home program.
The program is still in place and pairs soldiers with host families who can spend time with them and help them learn more about the area. Over its existence, the program has matched hundreds of soldiers with roughly 80 local families.
Fitzgerald started the program in part because it’s something she could have used as a new soldier herself.
“I, as a little, young 17-year-old leaving home for the first time — and going somewhere where I didn’t know anybody — a program like this could have been a little bit more beneficial,” she said.
Now, the program is looking for more volunteer host families to take new soldiers under their wings, show them around the community and provide friendship and support during their first time away from home.
Fitzgerald is about to start taking soldier applications for the program and needs people to match them with.
Participating host families won’t be asked to have their adopted soldier come live with them. They’ll just be asked to spend time with their soldier on occasion, be there for them to provide emotional support if needed and take them out into the community on occasion to help them get to know their off-post surroundings.
“It’s just a way they have someone to communicate with outside of the military,” Fitzgerald said. “They might get a good home cooked meal sometime, they might get invited to an event. The host family will start to share our communities with them. The host families are like mentors, they’re like friends.”
COVID-19 has changed some things, but host families could still communicate with their soldiers virtually.
The program, in addition to helping the soldiers, helps the community by letting young men and women learn more about Junction City and Geary County. It helps new soldiers step outside what could become an insular community on Fort Riley and gets them out of their barracks. It lets them know what’s going on in the community.
Fitzgerald describes the experience of hosting soldiers as “rewarding.”
“I’ve had a chance to meet quite a few families of those soldiers,” she said. “There’s nothing more rewarding than to listen to the parents say that this gives them great comfort that not only is the Army taking care of their soldier — or their daughter or their son — but so is the community.”
The relationship between surrogate family and soldier does not have to end after the soldier has left the community. Many soldiers have maintained connections with their adoptive families well after they’ve moved on from Fort Riley and the Junction City community.
“It could last as long as the soldier and the family want it to last,” Fitzgerald said. “It could be a lifetime.”
The soldiers who benefit from the program are new to the Army and Fort Riley, so most participants will be on the younger side — between the ages of 18 and 20.
Soldiers who want to take part in the program can fill out a form Fitzgerald provides to new soldiers as they arrive on Fort Riley.
Aspiring host families can contact Fitzgerald via phone at 785-307-1472 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about the program or request to sign up.