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Military families missing organizations ready to help them

Families who have a member serving in Iraq or Afghanistan often need help around the house. Volunteers are often willing to provide the assistance. But it's hard for the two groups to connect.

By Sarah More McCannContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / July 15, 2008

Happy to help: GreenCare for Troops volunteers landscape (and play) for a military family.

Courtesy of GreenCare for Troops, Project EverGreen

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Theresa Downing would love to hear her husband grumble about cutting the grass, but the Army reservist is in Iraq, so the lawn is entirely her responsibility, as are parenting, renovations, and bills.

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But recently, Ms. Downing got help with her Lakeland, Fla., yard. Through GreenCare for Troops, she was paired with a landscaper who maintains her yard for free.

"GreenCare for Troops is a godsend," Downing says of the nonprofit program linking lawn-care volunteers with families of deployed troops. "It's the only service for military families I [have] utilized."

Families of those serving in Afghanistan and Iraq often experience economic challenges, social isolation, and confusion over how to locate needed support.

"I don't know what's out there and where to look," she says. "It's truly a concern."

Meanwhile, many organizations providing home-maintenance help report that they're clamoring for military families to serve – and failing to find them.

The mismatch highlights how families can fall through the cracks when a spouse is deployed, and how service providers are becoming as focused on outreach as they are dedicated to helping.

The Red Cross estimates that some 3.9 million families have been affected by a deployment.

Even routine home repairs can seem impossible with a breadwinner deployed, says T.J. Cantwell of Rebuilding Together, a home-rehabilitation program for low-income owners. His organization partnered with Sears a year ago to found "Heroes at Home" for military homeowners. With some $4 million, they hope to fix 300 homes in 2009. Mr. Cantwell's main concern: finding families.

Household chores were a top source of spousal stress in a 1999 study of active-duty military families. Chores left incomplete due to time, money, or energy constraints can strain an entire family, notes Shelly MacDermid, director of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

"Studies show that often children do as their caregivers do. If caregivers feel good and maintain structure, kids will do better. One of the main contributors is to give caregivers the feeling they are under control and managing," Dr. MacDermid says.

Volunteer services for the families also help troops, says John Hobot of the Minnesota National Guard: "Sometimes, we get a foot of snow in Minnesota. If my wife told me she can't get out of the driveway, I'm still thinking about it on my mission."

Mr. Hobot was deployed to Baghdad in 2005, and is now – through the Guard – affiliated with The First Lady's Military Family Care Initiative, a state program linking military families and organizations willing to shovel, mow, or repair pipes.

For more information

• GreenCare for Troops:

• Rebuilding Together:

Minnesota First Lady's Military Family Care Initiative