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Last year for Mother’s Day, Air Force mom La Toya Wall received four “crazy looking birdhouses” that each of her children made at a Home Depot workshop in Anchorage, Alaska. The workshop was among many La Toya took her kids to on weekends while her husband, Blake Jacob, was deployed to Kuwait during the first half of 2016.

m2h operation homefront mother military WallJacobFam“It actually helped pass the time while he was deployed,” she said. “It put me on a schedule, knowing that they had these events” to occupy Sidney, 11; Khloee, 10; Khodee, 4; and Storee, 3. Blake also has a 9-year-old daughter, Ryleigh, who lives in Arizona with her mother. “It was awesome,” said LaToya, who compared the workshops to Scouting because Home Depot gives the kids aprons, achievement certificates, and patches or pins for their aprons. “It helped out a lot.”

Creative solutions are one of the things La Toya is known for at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, where the family has been stationed since 2013. She also wows her friends as a cook, baker, seamstress, decorator and multi-family game night coordinator.

“We’re a nerdy family,” she said. “We have a lot of game nights,” lip synching karaoke battles and Iron-Chef-style competitions, even sending guests home with to-go boxes because she was tired of all her Tupperware disappearing.

La Toya’s family will celebrate her this Mother’s Day — Blake will cook breakfast and dinner, and take the family hiking — for many of the same qualities that military moms across the world are honored, including self-reliance, resilience and a can-do attitude.

“You don’t necessarily depend on other people,” she said. “Moving here has definitely helped me into allowing other people to help. I’m used to just doing things. You don’t just wait for someone to do it for you.”

For her part, La Toya is thankful that the military exposes her and her family to diversity, “getting to meet people from different nationalities and cultures … I love that.”

m2h operation homefront military mom WallJacobFam2La Toya wouldn’t have known about the Home Depot workshops, where she made friends with other families who introduced her to a hiking group, if she hadn’t attended an Operation Homefront Back-to-School Brigade event in 2015. Home Depot, an OH donor, and other organizations that serve military families often provide information at OH events. At BTSB, her children and many others received backpacks filled with money-saving school supplies. “I’m always helping other people, so it was nice to be on the receiving side,” La Toya said. OH has distributed more than 250,000 backpacks to military children since the program began in 2008.

In 2016, La Toya and Blake participated again in BTSB, and also in Holiday Meals for Military at Thanksgiving and the Holiday Toy Drive at Christmas. La Toya particularly enjoyed the social atmosphere, like a church potluck, at the Holiday Toy Drive event, which included a cookie exchange. Each child receives a gift, and Santa is there to take pictures with families, something La Toya had been having trouble finding time to do, especially since Blake had been working nights.

When La Toya first heard about Operation Homefront from a friend, she wondered if it was only for needy families. “I’m pretty sure there’s someone that needs it more than I do,” she said, adding she didn’t want to take away from another family. But after learning more about who can qualify for some Operation Homefront programs, she realized, “This is for everybody.”

The families at the toy drive also received children’s passes to the local indoor waterpark, which La Toya has been putting off visiting because of the expense.

Under the Holiday Meals program, military families receive groceries or gift cards to buy food. The defrayed grocery costs allowed La Toya to buy ingredients to bake extra treats for her daughter’s birthday, which is on Christmas Day. “The day she came, I just couldn’t imagine not having her or any of them. I like the crazy smiles that I get sometimes.”

La Toya comes from a large family, the oldest with 15 siblings, at least seven of whom lived together in Texas. “My [step] mom would have a full household of all of us kids at any given time,” she said. Stressful babysitting and elder care responsibilities for her siblings and grandparents often fell to La Toya before she was 18. Even after she married the first time, she would sometimes travel home to cook Thanksgiving dinner.

“Cooking is the only way I can get everyone together. Food is like my family’s binder.” Over the last several years, La Toya has come to better understand her family’s dynamics, but has also welcomed the opportunity to shift from caring for her extended family to herself and her nuclear family.

“My kids have never really had traditional grandparents, and I have never had traditional parents,” said La Toya, who has not had a relationship with her biological mother since she was 5. “I don’t ever want to miss a moment with my kids,” she said, adding that she volunteers to chaperone almost every field trip.

Her stepmother, as a Jehovah’s Witness, does not celebrate holidays, so La Toya typically would simply call to tell her “I really appreciate that you stepped up when you didn’t have to.”

La Toya has been further shaped by miscarrying a baby at two months, and twins at 6 months, her three “angel babies.”

La Toya and Blake will move their family soon to Colorado, where Blake, a staff sergeant in logistics, will support the Air Force band. La Toya is considering starting a baking business or some other creative line of work, but is concerned making it a profession might take the fun out of hobbies she enjoys. “It’s very therapeutic,” she said of baking.

Their journey will be another adventure, traveling by ferry for four days to Washington and then driving through Idaho and Wyoming. Blake wanted to surprise La Toya because she loves lighthouses and he knew they would see several at ferry stops. But she’s not a fan of surprises, and was resisting taking the ferry, so he told her.

Remembering the two-week drive to Anchorage from Texas, passing through Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Canada including the Yukon Territory with three kids and pregnant, and a couple flat tires along the way, La Toya and Blake happily “found out we like being married to each other,” she joked.

It’s Military Appreciation Month! Consider joining us on our Mission2Honor military and veteran families throughout the month of May. No matter how you choose to honor service members and their families, don’t let this month pass by without doing something to show your appreciation.

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One of the reasons we created the Operation Homefront Military Child of the Year® award program is to honor the resilience and strength of the youngest members of a military family who are along for the ride as their parents protect our freedom. It’s not an easy life. But the way most military kids carry themselves shows that they have endured, and survived, some very tough times. Multiple moves. Deployments. Sickness and injury that may affect a family member or themselves.

This year’s award recipients took some time to share how they get through tough times…to let other kids know that they struggle too and to inspire them to persevere.

Their words of advice are remarkable…read on:

 

Moving to a different place can be exciting, but with that comes the challenge of being the new kid in school and having to make new friends. Not knowing where you fit in within the social arena of school life (is hard). The thing that gets me through those tough times is running, or walking outside. Doing any activity outside helps me relieve stress and relax.
Jamal Braxton, 18, Air Force Military Child of the Year

 

 

I always would pack my schedule full during any tough time I would face. I would try new activities that would take up my free time, so that I had no time to think about what was causing that tough time, such as deployment.- Molly Frey, 16, National Guard Military Child of the Year

 

 

 

 

In times of trial, I find comfort in the fact that I’ve already faced and overcome some of life’s greatest challenges, and doing so is not abnormal, but my continual reality. –Henderson Heussner, 18, Army Military Child of the Year

 

 

 

 

 

 

My family (is) very close because of all the moves we have done. No matter how I am feeling I can always count on my family to be there and cheer me up. -Mary Kate Cooper, 17, Coast Guard Military Child of the Year

 

 

 

 

 

 

I like to exercise when I am frustrated or irritated.- Sophie Bernstein, 17, Military Child of the Year Award for Innovation

 

 

 

 

 

 

Several things keep me together during hard times. Two of them are my dogs. They sit with me and love me no matter what I do. It is relaxing to sit there and pet them. Another factor is my family; they discuss my options with me and keep me on track.- Jackson Beatty, 18, Marine Corps Military Child of the Year

 

 

 

The support of my family, especially my mother, who has served as the anchor of my family while we have moved from place to place. My mom is a huge inspiration to me, and the soul of our family. It is because of her support that we have been so successful. I also had great personal consistency through my participation in the Boy Scouts of America. While there were many different things in the places I lived, the Scouting program always allowed me to have a home where I could easily participate in familiar activities and have an instant group of friends in a new location. – Alexander McGrath, 17, Navy Military Child of the Year

 

Find out more about this year’s recipients, take a look at more pictures from this year’s event or watch the 2017 Facebook Live presentation of our awards ceremony

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By John Pray, President & Chief Executive Officer
Brig. Gen. (ret.), USAF

It’s exciting to be able to see into the future. I had this rare opportunity when I had the privilege of spending time with seven exceptional military teens this week as we honored our Military Child of the Year ® recipients at our special gala in Washington DC.

Sophie, Henderson, Jamal, Jackson, Alexander, Mary and Molly – each one of these amazing young adults possesses a remarkable spirit: the spirit of selfless service that defines our great nation.

Their spirit shined as they dealt with parental deployments, relocations, and the many other uncertainties and challenges that often characterize military family life.

They have developed an inner compass that points them to give back, to lead, to volunteer, to advocate, and to serve others in their own communities.

They are extraordinary representatives of the nearly two million military children who serve all of us alongside their parents.

Our special guest for the evening, Ellyn Dunford, wife of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joe Dunford, expressed her admiration so well when she described our seven honorees:

“When you look at this year’s recipients, you’ll find an impressive example of what these kids have to offer. They volunteer extensively both in military and civilian communities, scouting and church groups, a variety of school programs and academic excellence clubs. They overcome adversity and then helped others through the same problems. They excel in sports and music. They mentor other kids. They advocate for military families and veterans’ groups. They feed their community. They provide clothing and comfort to others. Especially comfort to the parent (who remains behind). They have taken the phrase, ‘it’s in our power’ and they are living it out. They (might) just be the next greatest generation.”

I couldn’t agree more. When you are fortunate enough to interact with a special group of young people like this, you are confident that the future of our country is in good hands.

Our honorees this year are all in their late teens – they may have just been learning to walk or talk in 2002 when an informal network of military spouses first got together to support one another during post 9/11 deployments to create the organization we now know as Operation Homefront.

We’ve grown tremendously over the past 15 years, and while the world has changed significantly our mission, our promise – to build strong, stable and secure military families so they can thrive, not simply struggle to get by, in the communities they have worked so hard to protect – still drives us all.
I am proud to tell you that thanks to your support, we are making a real difference. You help us honor our military children, those who don’t have a voice in where their family will be transferred, but who certainly seize each new opportunity to focus on making a meaningful difference in whatever community they call “home.”

At Operation Homefront, one of our core values is gratitude so I need to thank those who made this year’s Military Child of the Year® celebration a huge success:

• Ellyn Dunford, our keynote speaker, who clearly articulated our collective admiration for the resiliency of our military families and the key role military children play as they serve all of us alongside their parents;
• Andre’ McMillian, representing our presenting sponsor United Technologies Corporation and all of our other sponsors who made this evening’s celebration possible;
• The one and only John Heald, Brand Ambassador for Carnival Cruise Lines, who cleverly orchestrated the night’s program as our emcee;
• The USO Show Troupe who provided an entertaining military salute;
• America’s Tenor, and my friend, Danny Rodriguez;
• And special thanks to the entire Operation Homefront family for all they have done and continue to do to build strong, stable and secure military families.

To all our 2017 honorees – I know your parents, families, AND communities are so proud of you — WE are proud of you too.

We look forward to next year and our 10th annual Military Child of the Year® Awards ceremony!

Find out more about this year’s recipients, take a look at more pictures from this year’s event or watch the 2017 Facebook Live presentation of our awards ceremony!

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Jackson Beatty, 2017 Marine Corps Military Child of the Year® Award, has spent his entire youth overcoming adversity and making a difference.

When asked what trait he hoped someone would think of when describing him, Jackson writes, “I would hope they would pick my determination. Through all the hardships of my life I have never looked down and felt defeated. I have tried to keep my head high and push through obstacles in my way.”

Military kids often speak of the impact military moves have on them fitting in and making new friends, and for Jackson, this has been doubly true. Jackson had to adapt to the physical challenges of a condition called skeletal dysplasia which hampers the growth of bones and joints, while facing the emotional challenges of being bullied.

But it is Jackson’s character, leadership, and academic excellence that set an enviable example of resilience and strength.

Jackson’s determination has paid off. In addition to a near perfect GPA, he is his high school’s wresting team captain, recently placing third in his weight class at the 2017 North Carolina state championships. He is also a Kempo karate black belt, an art he has pursued since he was 4 and that he teaches to children in his spare time at a local facility.

His leadership has not been limited to the mat. He has served as Vice President of the Executive Board of the Student Government Association at his school. He has been chosen by both the faculty of his school and The Rotary Club of Jacksonville, N.C to attend leadership conferences to develop his promise.
Completing a trifecta of school involvement, Jackson has been captain of the Marching Band drumline and an active Band Booster, raising money for competition and band necessities.

His service continues outside of school, as he has devoted time to support March of Dimes, Special Olympics, Relay for Life, and Semper Fi Fund among many others.

Jackson is the son of Chief Warrant Officer Geoff Beatty and Somer Beatty of Camp Lejeune, NC. He is planning on attending the University of Alabama next academic year and majoring in either biology or engineering. It is fitting that his favorite quotes is from the legendary ‘Bama coach, Bear Bryant:
“A champion pays an extra price to be better than anyone else.”

Jackson said: “This year is my last year in high school, and I want it to be the best. To do this, I have to push myself and make it great. This quote reminds me that I have to give more to obtain what I want.”

#RollTide

Operation Homefront would like to thank presenting sponsor, United Technologies, for their support of Military Child of the Year®.  Support from companies like United Technologies and all of our MCOY sponsors is invaluable in helping us showing appreciation for the contributions our military families make to our communities.

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For Jamal Braxton, 2017 Military Child of the Year® Award recipient for the U.S. Air Force, and future U. S. Air Force Academy Class of 2021 cadet, is always ready for a challenge . It begins with an unshakeable belief that there is always something that can be done, whether through service to others or endless compassion.

This empathy for others, to be fully engaged, also drives Jamal to serve others. Both at home and abroad, Jamal has been active in and outside of the base gates. In the U.S. and overseas, he has championed the nonprofit New Eyes for the Needy, which purchases new eyeglasses for U.S. residents and distributes used eyeglasses to the disadvantaged in developing countries. In the current school year alone, Jamal has obtained 160 eyeglasses and 70 lenses for the nonprofit.

In addition to enduring the relocations and deployments of his father, Jamal has also known loss. Two of his school-age friends have passed too young, one to an auto accident and the other to a seizure. These experiences have driven him to embrace all that life has to offer while compelling him to give back and encouraging and supporting others to do the same.

While he acknowledges the obstacles inherent to military life, Jamal is poetic in describing the positive experiences he has had, particularly when describing the family’s time in Japan. “I personally loved living in Japan, because although they’re modern they appreciate nature to its fullest,” said Jamal. “Japan has shown me how to truly appreciate nature from their breath-taking scenery and by holding festivals like the Cherry Blossoms Festival and Hanami both appreciating the beauty of flowers.”

He has also been extremely active with the Red Cross at home and during his time in Germany. In these capacities, Jamal oversees monthly veteran house visits, youth group and leadership group meetings, numerous activities related to the armed forces, the recruitment of future Red Cross Youth Services leaders, and numerous fundraisers, including the International Measles & Rubella Initiative fundraiser.

He said his time with the Red Cross has fueled his aspiration to be a neurosurgeon one day. “I have always had an interest in the function of the brain and its amazing abilities from simple tasks like our five senses to language comprehension,” said Jamal. “So, my passion for the brain and the wanting to help others has steered me to the field of Neurology.” He also educates youth on International Humanitarian Law.

Jamal doesn’t stop there. He is a varsity athlete in swimming, track and field and cross country, active in Scouting, and has a job as a lifeguard.

Jamal is the son of Master Sgt. Lawrence Braxton and Ahllam Braxton of Hill AFB, UT. With all he has accomplished to date, the sky is the limit for this young man.

Operation Homefront would like to thank presenting sponsor, United Technologies, for their support of Military Child of the Year®.  Support from companies like United Technologies and all of our MCOY sponsors is invaluable in helping us showing appreciation for the contributions our military families make to our communities.

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Molly Frey faces her fears with fervor. Our 2017 National Guard Military Child of the Year said she first felt the impact of being a military kid when her dad, Senior Master Sergeant Kim Frey (ret), deployed to Iraq for the first time.

“This growing sadness and worry I developed was very difficult to explain to my school friends.Most children without a military background don’t understand deployment, and how it affects a family. He was a half a world away, and there was nothing we could do about it,” reflected Molly.

But that wasn’t all. Through her father’s deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, Molly also faced the military demands facing her mother, Senior Master Sergeant Renee Frey, who serves in the Air National Guard. At times, she was without both parents

But Molly didn’t shrink back in fear…she let it serve as her motivation to excel in life. “I never let my grades slip, nor did I ever let his deployments stop me from accomplishing many things. I started Tribute to the Troops (an ice skating event in her area of Ohio) in honor of my father and to all the military. I took what is difficult for children to handle and used it to bounce back and give back to the military community,” said Molly.

On top of all of this, Molly was still able to maintain academic excellence, keep a 4.0 or higher..

“I have NEVER seen anyone her age exhibit the dedication she does to everything,” said Molly’s supervisor when she was an assistant sailing instructor at Leatherlips Yacht Club’s children’s camp. “On windy days, I have seen her rescue 20 capsized boats and be so tired that I had to lift her into the pontoon boat, just to watch her dive off again to rescue another. She would take charge of the students during boat rigging time to ensure that everything was done correctly.  Molly is a remarkable young lady.”

Molly’s favorite saying is by author Suzy Kassem,   “Fear kills more dreams than failure ever will.”  She says it reminds her when she wants to try something new or if something scares her, to push herself to do it.

She’s received the President’s Award for Outstanding Academic Excellence twice. In a letter to Molly, ,   President Barack Obama wrote, “Students like you will chart the course of our country’s unwritten history, and I commend you for setting a powerful example for all young Americans.”

Molly also raised funds and participated for five years in Skate for Hope accumulating over $6,000 for Breast Cancer Research. Molly served in the leadership group “Students Serving Students (S3)” designed to improve character, school climate, organize events and an anti-bullying group to formulate ideas to prevent bullying in school. Molly has also performed in the professional Columbus Ohio BalletMet Nutcracker three years. She was selected as 2012 Miss Greene Countrie Towne Junior Miss to be involved in community events.

She also plays the piano, golfs, and figure skates.  She also finds time to volunteer at her local hospital allowing her to shadow medical personnel, because she is determined to be a cardio thoracic heart surgeon.

No doubt, Molly will make a way!

 

Operation Homefront would like to thank presenting sponsor, United Technologies, for their support of Military Child of the Year®.  Support from companies like United Technologies and all of our MCOY sponsors is invaluable in helping us showing appreciation for the contributions our military families make to our communities.

 

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At the age of 11, Sophie Bernstein asked her parents to start a garden. Her parents, Navy Reserves Capt. Brad Bernstein and Moira Bernstein, initially dismissed the request. Perhaps they thought the work of planting, weeding and harvesting would ultimately fall on them. Or maybe they envisioned a sad overgrown mess, due to neglect.

But Sophie persisted, and they gave in. Now 17 years old, Sophie’s green thumb grew into a remarkable bounty, not only for her family but also for hundreds of others in her community.

“When I explained to my parents that I would oversee all the garden tasks and that I wanted to donate the vegetables I grew to a food bank, they agreed to let me grow my first raised vegetable garden bed in 2012. For the past four years, I have expanded my project to 22 gardens at low-income preschools, daycares and emergency shelters for children in the metropolitan St. Louis region.”

For that extraordinary effort, she’s been chosen to receive Operation Homefront’s 2017 Military Child of the Year® Award for Innovation, sponsored by Booz Allen Hamilton.

So far, Sophie has donated more than 13,570 pounds of produce to local food banks and to families in need. Sophie’s innovation has raised awareness of childhood hunger in the community, and it has increased the volume of fresh and healthy produce available at food banks and at child care facilities.

Sophie believes that everyone can make an impact and a difference in improving the world at any age, at any time. Her favorite quote from Anne Frank, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world,” reminds her that Anne was only a teenager when she wrote a book that would have a huge impact on the world.

“Too often we underestimate the impact a simple gesture can have in another,” said Sophie.
Sophie’s project has been a hands-on learning lab for children, as she has led 225 science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) botany and plant science workshops for young children throughout the year. In the process, students at low-income preschools are engaged in building, planting and maintaining produce gardens.

But she didn’t stop there. Sophie and her siblings started a website called http://www.volunteennation.org/ to engage youth throughout the nation in service. Using social media, they try to activate and mobilize youth in service. So far, they have recruited 785 teen volunteers from area high schools to help with the gardens and with the plant science workshops.

Sophie exemplifies the passion and resilience seen in so many military kids. Her family’s legacy of military service not only includes her dad, but also her sister serves in the Navy and both of her grandfathers were active in the Air Force and Army.

As part of the Award for Innovation, Sophie will receive a mentorship by Booz Allen Hamilton employees to scale or to advance her gardening and service projects. We can’t wait to see where Sophie’s passion to help others will take her next!

Operation Homefront would like to thank presenting sponsor, United Technologies, for their support of Military Child of the Year®.  Support from companies like United Technologies and all of our MCOY sponsors is invaluable in helping us showing appreciation for the contributions our military families make to our communities.

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