Photo: From left, A Soldier’s Child Office Manager Cathy Stufflebean, Tom Meredith, Boyd Fulton, ASC Executive Director Daryl Mackin, Art Rietz, Don Bett and ASC Administrative Assistant Deidre Dechira.
By LANDON WOODROOF
Don Bett, Boyd Fulton, Tom Meredith and Art Rietz have been out of uniform for a while now, but their sense of duty remains firmly intact.
For the past several years, they and other members of the Middle Tennessee Veterans Support Group have helped the local charity A Soldier’s Child organize a day of golf for kids who attend one of their weekend camps.
On Wednesday afternoon, the four veterans paid a visit to the Smyrna headquarters of A Soldier’s Child, a non-profit that serves the children of fallen service members. There they talked about this year’s upcoming golf event and spoke with A Soldier’s Child Executive Director Daryl Mackin about the work his organization does.
The golf event idea came about several years ago. Fulton, a resident of Belle Rive, has a granddaughter who became interested in golf as a young girl. She told him one year the next summer she came to visit she would probably be old enough to play herself.
“The next day Pop is out in the back,” Fulton said.
Behind his and his neighbor’s houses was some green space within a flood plain. He got the OK from the neighbors and set about building a little 9-hole course back there.
Mackin, a Navy veteran, found out about the course when he came to one of the veteran support group’s weekly meetings at Brentwood’s Costco location.
“One thing led to another, and I remember [Boyd] told me about the course, and I said maybe during camp we could bring the kids out,” Mackin remembered. Boyd said definitely.
The veterans provide the clubs, the balls and food. In addition, Meredith has specially ordered engraved medallions with red, white and blue ribbons from Prestige Trophies in Brentwood to give to the children. Prestige Trophies decided to donate those medallions for free after Meredith explained to them who they were intended for.
This year, 32 kids are expected in the back of Fulton’s yard for golf, and if past years are any indication, they will have a good time.
So, too, will the veterans.
Rietz said the golf events each year “are very uplifting.”
Meredith said he loves watching the kids respond to having so many people there sharing time with them and showing them how to play golf. He also enjoys seeing how the kids act around each other.
“They’re a wonderful bunch of kids,” he said. “I think they’re at ease because they’re with other kids who have experienced the same thing.”
This year’s golf day will be on Oct. 27.
The event will take place during one of ASC’s many weekend camps and retreats. The organization used to just hold one such event each year, but they’re now up to around a dozen, Mackin said. Those include songwriting camps, a STEM camp, a dance camp, etc. The one in a couple of weeks will bring together local kids and kids from across the country for several days of hunting, fishing and golfing.
Mackin said these get-together events are crucial for the kids, who may have lost their support structure when they moved off a base following a parent’s death.
At the ASC camps, they can forge new relationships with people who have suffered the same types of loss.
“All of these events, as great as they are, they’re just conduits to get the kids together,” Mackin said. “That’s where they form these bonds of healing. Magic happens, I’m telling ya.”
Mackin shared one such magical story on Wednesday. A couple of years ago he received a phone call from a parent whose son had attended an ASC camp.
“She said, ‘Well as I’m talking to you right now I’m in the kitchen looking out the window, and my boy is riding a bike with the neighborhood boys,'” Mackin recalled. “I said great. That’s awesome. She said, ‘No you don’t understand, my son doesn’t leave the house.'” After camp, the boy not only started playing with friends, he also started talking about his father who had died.
He’s just changed, the mother said. He’s different.
A child does not have to have lost a parent in a combat zone to get connected with ASC. Whether the parent died on the battlefield, in training, or back home from psychological or physical injuries sustained during service, A Soldier’s Child is there to help.
“Bottom line is that every single mom or dad who has come to us we have always said yes,” Mackin said. “We have never turned away a family.”
Besides the camping events and retreats, the other primary way ASC connects to kids is through its birthday present program. The organization raises money to send birthday packages each year to its kids.
ASC partners with corporations across the country as parts of its Compassionate Corporate America Partners program to raise money for these gifts.
ASC staff will go to a city, get a bunch of people together at a store like Wal-Mart, give them shopping lists for the kids’ birthdays and then let them loose. The next day they will wrap up the presents and ship them, ASC Administrative Assistant Deidre Dechira said.
The C-CAP program is the main way ASC gets the money it needs to continue. Mackin said the group gets no government funding.
“This started as a citizen initiative, and it’s gonna remain this way,” Mackin said. “The citizens of this country have an opportunity to give back to the children of our fallen defenders of freedom.”
The non-profit started in 2008, not long after Mackin’s neighbor, Staff Sergeant Marcus Andrew Golczynski, was killed in action. Mackin was preparing a birthday party for his own six-year old son, when he thought of Golczynski’s son, Christian. He realized Christian would never again have the opportunity to experience a birthday part with his father.
“We showed up with gifts for Christian, and then it turned into two kids, then five, then 40, then 100, and now we’re just under 3,000,” Mackin said.
Once the organization reached 400 kids, Mackin quit his 20-year career as a high school chef instructor to shift to ASC full time. The organization now has kids in every state and in places like Puerto Rico, where staff have been trying desperately to get in touch with people since Hurricane Maria.
The boxes stand for something more than just birthday fun. They are testaments to the fact that people are out there care for them and are thinking about them.
“These kids, I’m telling you…they look forward to these boxes,” Mackin said. “It’s not always what’s in the box but what the box represents itself.” Mackin says they represent love, honor and hope, which he calls the organization’s mantra.
Of course, not only the kids’ lives are touched by ASC’s work. So, too, are the lives of men like those from the Middle Tennessee Veterans Support Group.
“We like veterans to be mentors, to be chaperones of the kids because it is dual healing,” Mackin said. “They get some healing out of it as well, especially those who have experienced the loss of a brother comrade on the field.”
The veterans from Brentwood and Franklin plan on continuing to help the kids year after year.
“We want to do it as long as the old man is able to mow greens,” Fulton joked.