WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. --
Much like many other things during the COVID-19 pandemic, Halloween wasn’t quite the same this year.
For the Whiteman Airman & Family Readiness Center staff, however, that was no reason to abandon long-held traditions. To celebrate the holiday safely, the team recently offered the first entirely virtual Halloween Bingo for families of deployed members and those enrolled in the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP).
Joining “Skully McBones,” the center’s Halloween skeleton mascot, 51 family members donned costumes at home and gathered around screens large and small hoping to collect their virtual win.
“It was great seeing all those energetic kids that were extremely happy and just waiting to yell ‘Bingo!’,” said Senior Master Sgt. Gwen West, the center’s NCO in charge of readiness who organized the event with fellow readiness NCO Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Solis.
Even though the fun was virtual – the prizes were very real and kids and parents were able to pick their winnings ranging from popular gift cards to mystery “trick or treat” boxes containing surprise prizes like candy, board games and more.
“We've had a couple of family members come by to pick up their prizes the next day, and a lot of the family members have said that they really enjoyed it and their kids had a lot of fun,” Solis said. “It was great to hear the feedback and we could tell everybody was enjoying it. Everybody was dressed up and it was just a lot of fun that night.”
One family in particular received an especially sweet treat, West said.
“The biggest surprise we had was for one of our families whose Airman is deployed,” West said. “He sent them a special video greeting, wishing his family a happy Halloween, and telling them how much he missed and loved them -- and wished them good luck with Bingo, of course!”
While today’s military families routinely bridge the distance to their deployed and travelling loved ones via social media, email and video chat, the readiness staff was not able to host their usual in-person events this year, West said, and looked for ways to support Whiteman AFB’s families whilst keeping them safe at the same time.
“Typically, pre-COVID, we would hold various Hearts Apart events, which are for our deployed Airmen and their families,” West said. “These events help us build resiliency support, allowing family members to meet other families in the same situation to network and connect.”
In addition, West said it was important for her team to include members of the Exceptional Family Member Program, a Department of Defense program offering support to special needs family members.
“Some of our EFMP families have been especially impacted by the pandemic, because they are restricted at home, taking extra precautionary measure because of COVID,” West said. “A lot of them have kids that are stuck at home and we wanted to show them how fun it can be to do something together online.”
Managing the stress of health care challenges or family separation, on top of the anxieties brought on by a global pandemic, can be taxing, West said.
“Many of our families are away and separated from loved ones and that’s tough enough,” West said. “Especially now, due to all of the restrictions, we're finding ourselves having to just call them or email, and it's losing that personal touch. But it is really important to us to just reach out and see how they are holding up. We want to continue to reach out and just make sure that they're all doing well during this time, which is challenging in so many ways for us all.”
For West and Solis, connecting this way with service members and families is not only fun, but a vital part of supporting the mission. Along with information and morale events, the A&FRC team also conducts pre-deployment training, preparing Airmen for the stressors of deployment, and facilitating reintegration into daily family life for those returning from high-stress environments.
“At A&FRC, our Airmen and their families are our main priority,” West said. “While our Airmen are out there supporting the mission, their families are back here taking care of the home front. We have to ensure they are doing well so that our service members can continue to do their mission knowing that their family is being taken care of.”
Looking into the uncertain future of a prolonged pandemic, West said the team is continuously evaluating ways they can engage and support Team Whiteman.
“We're likely going to see a mixture of both virtual and in-person events when we can ensure public health review and approval,” West said. “Keeping everyone safe is always our priority.”
To keep up with Airman & Family Readiness events, visit the events calendar in AF Connect app by adding “Whiteman AFB” to your favorites – or visit https://www.whitemanfss.com/afrc