Home for the holidays – it’s an age-old adage that often evokes warm feelings of family amid the harsh winter cold. For most, there is some classically conditioned place that comes to mind when they see the first light on a menorah, hear the first chord of a Christmas song or smell the first scent of an evergreen pine. Though for some who serve, this place remains as far in distance as it does in memory because they won’t be able to get home this year. This is where the United States Coast Guard Academy’s Sponsor Family Program (SFP) comes in.
“The idea of the (sponsor family) program is very special,” said Lauren Pifer, the Academy’s Sponsor Family Coordinator. “Volunteer families provide cadets with an atmosphere outside of the rigorous training climate.”
Now dating back years, the chief objective of the Academy’s SFP is to provide cadets the opportunity to have a home-away-from-home. A simple concept, the SFP pairs cadets with local families who are willing and able to support them through the innate adversities of the cadet experience. This pairing comes right at the start of fourth-class (freshmen) year too, a pivotal point at which transition into military life is especially challenging.
“Some cadets will quickly find that sense of belonging on campus, while others may heavily rely on that family dynamic provided by the SFP for the duration of their time at the Academy and beyond,” Pifer explained. “Each cadet’s relationship with their sponsor family will look different, and it’s this individualized support that makes this program really special.”
This family dynamic isn’t exclusively beneficial to cadets either, as the families who take them in are just as likely to find fulfillment through their volunteerism too. This point is especially true for Catherine Griffin, the Academy’s Web Developer since 2008.
“I migrated to the United States from Manila, Philippines in the early 90s,” said Griffin. “When I first came to the U.S. I was just like them – a small fish in a big pond and trying to blend in. Back then I wished that I had a Filipino household to spend time with… to feel that sense of belonging and not feel homesick. This was my first and foremost reason why I chose to participate… These cadets have become a part of my family, and that extends to their (actual) families as well.”
Now married with a teen daughter, Griffin’s family continues to grow annually as a direct result of her hospitality.
“Us Filipinos are all related, maybe not by blood but by heart,” she added.
As Griffin’s experience illustrates, the SFP’s match-making techniques are a large reason for its continued success. This past year alone, the program oversaw the successful influx of 160 fourth-class swabs, matching them with 85 volunteer families in only about a month’s time. In total the program has roughly 200 volunteer families who sponsor cadets in various grades.
“Every summer we start the match making,” Pifer said while she explained her position as coordinator. “This is a very personalized process that involves pairing cadets with families in an environment that best suits their needs.”
Prior to becoming sponsors, all families must complete an application form found on the Academy’s website and a background check. This form places an emphasis on preferences, whether it be the preferred number of cadets to sponsor, preferred nationalities (to best facilitate a feeling of home; especially for international cadets) or even preferred hobbies. Each section on the sheet solicits information that is used for the express purpose of finding the perfect match for cadets and families alike.
“The Sponsor Family Program is, indeed, a very rewarding experience,” Griffin said. “I know what it’s like for parents to be far away from their kids for the first time… I hope that my family and I are, somehow, able to provide that feeling of relief in the knowledge that someone is here to make their sons and daughters feel as close to home as possible.”
Interested in becoming a sponsor yourself? Every spring the program begins recruiting new families for the incoming fourth-class. Find out if you qualify here!