As an active-duty military spouse, Jessica Strong is used to uprooting her family after her husband’s new post assignments.
Case in point: they’ve just moved to Fort Liberty — for the third time.
“Moving every few years is a major disruption for families,” Strong told CityView. “Children have to start in a different school, often with different academic courses, programs, and standards than the school they left behind.”
That doesn’t even begin to address the multitude of other challenges relocation brings: leaving jobs, meeting new friends, finding new doctors and child care and accessing other resources.
Strong has particular insight into the issue. She’s also the Senior Director of Applied Research at Blue Star Families, an organization founded by military spouses in 2009 to empower families to thrive as they serve — now reaching and serving than 1.5 million military family members every year.
In her role, Strong leads a team of researchers and analysts who conduct and disseminate research on the challenges and opportunities of military family life. The job: using quantitative and qualitative methods to create impactful research to inform and drive policy change to address military lifestyle challenges and support military and Veteran families.
She holds a PhD in Social Work from Rutgers University, which she says she uses to advance the research available on understanding military family issues and how helping professionals can support military families.
A week from Friday, Strong and Blue Star Families will host a get-together for new families as part of a nationwide “Welcome Week” program to allow new-to-Fort Liberty families the chance to meet and connect. CityView spoke with Strong about the Fayetteville gathering and about other ways Blue Star Families provides assistance.
Let’s start with the Welcome Week event you’ve planned for Friday, Sept. 29. Who’s it for, what’ll happen, and what’s the goal?
This event is to welcome new military families to the area and give them an opportunity to connect with other families — both military and civilian. It's hosted at a Starbucks Military Family Store, one of many such stores across the U.S. located near military installations, that serve as a place for connection and support for families. The goal is to help families meet and connect with others, to combat the social isolation that can come from moving to a new place every few years, and help families build connection and belonging.
Why is making these new connections — and those include connections between military families and their neighboring civilian families — so important?
These connections are critical for military families because our research (and other research) shows that connection is the first step to belonging, and belonging is a critical component of resilience and well-being.
We all need to belong to operate as our best selves, and when military families move every few years, they have to keep building and rebuilding those social connections we all depend on. Our research shows that more than a third of military families don't have anyone in the local community they could ask for a favor.
Think about when you register your kids for school and the school asks for an emergency contact. If you just moved to the community and you know no one, who do you put down? We want to help families quickly rebuild those social connections by providing opportunities to make those new connections.
What’s Blue Star Families’ role in facilitating and encouraging these new connections?
Blue Star Families wants to ensure that wherever American military families go, they can always feel connected, supported and empowered to thrive — in every community, across the nation, and around the globe. Through Welcome Week events, and year-round, we aim to bring military families together and address their unique lifestyle challenges. We work with great partners like Starbucks and NextDoor to build opportunities for military families to connect with their neighbors — both military and civilian.
Blue Star Families coordinates hundreds of these events nationally during the week of Sept. 22 – Oct. 1. Can you share insights into the scope of annual military family relocation?
As many as 600,000 active-duty and transitioning families (those transitioning out of the military) move every year, and most — 70% — move into civilian communities, not onto military installations.
Blue Star Welcome Week is designed to alleviate relocation challenges and support military families with opportunities to participate in events, including receiving messages and actions of welcome and appreciation from communities across the country. Here is a link to all the events scheduled across the country for Welcome Week.
Why is this “internal migration” difficult for military families? What kinds of challenges does moving every two or three years present?
Moving every few years is a major disruption for families. Children have to start in a different school, often with different academic courses, programs, and standards than the school they left behind. Military spouses frequently have to leave behind jobs and face unemployment; they have 4-6 times the unemployment rate of their civilian peers — 20% are unemployed. Families have to start many things over — finding new doctors, new child care, new activities for their children, and new resources for all the things they need.
Relocation can also be expensive, and disrupts family finances as well. Our recent research found that families spend an average of $8,000 out of pocket in their most recent move. These are costs that aren't reimbursed, and often occur precisely when the spouse loses their income and the family is more financially vulnerable.
Most importantly, though, is leaving behind social connections and needing to build a new support network with each relocation. That's where Blue Star Families aims to help.
It seems like we’re increasingly living in a disconnected world. Social media, a pandemic and polarization have created barriers instead of connection points. Blue Star focuses on a sense of belonging. How does the organization work to make that notion of belonging easier?
One of the ways is through our Chapters, which host local activities and events throughout the year, as well as events like Blue Star Welcome Week.
A new way we're helping families build these connections is through our Neighborhood — a digital community that connects military families all across the world, wherever they are. In the Neighborhood, we have all kinds of different communities — local Chapter communities, communities for Caregivers, Careers, Volunteers, and Research and Policy. There, you can access resources, and join discussions with other military families like yours.
You’re a part of this, too. You and your husband have just moved back to Fort Liberty — for the third time. What have you learned in your own moves and in your research that you can share with other military families?
One of the things I've learned over the years, through both research and my own experience, are some strategies to get plugged into a new social network. Many families connect to others through their kids' schools and activities, so volunteering with the school or an activity like Girl Scouts is one way to quickly meet others with similar interests. Sometimes it's as simple as striking up a conversation with other parents at the school bus stop in the morning.
That strategy extends to other family members' activities too. One of the first things I do when we receive word we're moving to a new community is connect with hobby groups there. It could be any activity or hobby you enjoy — a book club, a hiking group, even a Dungeons & Dragons group, if that's your thing. There are more ways now to find people who have similar interests — but it depends on you to get out the door and put yourself out there.
And what should civilians and residents living in military communities know, and do, when it comes to greeting their new active service neighbors?
You don't have to do anything special, just be a good neighbor. Getting out and meeting your neighbors and welcoming new neighbors to the area. Encourage your kids to introduce themselves to the new kid in their classroom, and introduce yourself to new neighbors in your community.
I always really appreciate getting the "inside scoop" on the community from a new neighbor. Only a neighbor can tell me what to expect for trick-or-treating, which post office is the least busy, or how "formal" the semi formal school dance will be. They can also direct me to their favorites — where to find the best restaurants, hairstylists, and pumpkin patch — or other can't-miss local activities.
Part of your work, and Blue Star Families’ work, involves research into helping members of military families build resilience. What does that look like?
A big part of it is building connections and belonging through our Chapters, Neighborhood, events like Blue Star Welcome Week, and our programming. Having a sense of belonging and feeling like a valued member of the community are critical pieces of belonging.
What else does Blue Star Families do and provide?
In addition to cultivating a sense of belonging through our Welcome Week events and our on-the-ground Chapters across the country, we also create vibrant communities of support through our free programming and membership. We offer a wide variety of programs — from Blue Star Books (free books for military children) and Blue Star Museums (free entry to participating museums during the summer), to peer-to-peer support for Caregivers and suicide prevention peer-support programs, to Blue Star Outdoors, connecting military families to the outdoors. We have a Blue Star Careers program to help spouses overcome the barriers to employment that military lifestyle can bring. It provides free training programs, networking and connects spouses with military-friendly employers.
We also offer free Blue Star Perks to our members (and membership is free!), including access to Headspace, Spiritune, The Swell Score, and Thrive Market, as well as special discounts from top brands.
For more information about Blue Star Families, check out the organization's website.