Operation Holiday Connection brings cheer to families during pandemic

Baumholder Outdoor Recreation staff spent a month meticulously refurbishing Santa’s 100-plus-year-old sleigh to get it ready for family photos, one of the activities available for the community as part of Operation Holiday Connection this year.

Celebrating the holidays during a pandemic will be new for everyone, but U.S. Army Garrison Rheinland-Pfalz plans to help make it the best possible experience for Soldiers and families.

Operation Holiday Connection — organized by Family and Morale, Welfare, and Recreation — will provide fun holiday activities through FMWR libraries, Army Community Service, Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers, and Outdoor Recreation, in addition to connecting Soldiers and families to virtual resources from garrison partner organizations.

From December 3-23, FMWR’s Santa Village will be on display at Baumholder ODR. Although kids won’t get to sit on Santa’s lap this year, Baumholder ODR will provide a family photo opportunity in Santa’s sleigh. The sleigh is over 100 years old and took ODR staff over a month to refurbish.

“We’ve worked hard the last few weeks to ensure that the safety of our community is first, [so] to best follow the COVID guidelines, we’ll be offering photo shoots by appointment only,” said Jason Ille, director of Outdoor Recreation for the garrison, adding, “We will have representation for all FMWR facilities on site to ensure our community is knowledgeable on all that is provided to our community.”

Appointments for a photo with the sled and a walk through the display can be scheduled with Baumholder ODR at 0611-143-531-3401.

For a chance to see Santa, the library and ACS will host a virtual reading of Polar Express by Santa Dec. 18 through Microsoft Teams. Families must register by Dec. 10 with the first names of their kids to make sure they each get a “Holiday Cheer” packet in time for the reading. Packets will include hot cocoa and peppermint, as well as the official link to the event.

“We cherish our relationship with the community and are doing our best to continue providing excellent resources even when face-to-face meeting is not possible,” said Mindy Malenius, programming librarian for the garrison’s libraries.

She added that books, video games, and movies can still be requested at garrison libraries, and that all of their many online resources — including e-books, streaming services, test prep, databases, language lessons, and more — are also available.

“To access even more virtual content, including storytimes, makerspaces and other programming, we invite everyone to our Facebook groups Friends of the Baumholder Library and Friends of the Landstuhl Library,” Malenius said. “Best of all, everything is free. We hope to keep you connected during the pandemic and beyond.”

After the Polar Express reading, information about other resources will be provided, such as emergency contact information and ideas for pandemic-safe social, spiritual, and family activities throughout the garrison footprint.

Garrison Army Community Services Chief Heather Robinson said the idea for Operation Holiday Connection began in October, with the start of the second partial lockdown. Leadership recognized long-term isolation was a significant threat due to a lack of connection to people and resources.

“New Soldiers and families arriving this year left locations in lockdown in the United States and potentially missed traditional farewells to friends and families due to pandemic restrictions,” Robinson said. “They then relocated to USAG Rheinland-Pfalz during a lockdown with quarantine and reduced exposure to resources available to support readiness.”

Robinson said that by providing family-friendly, fun holiday activities, along with information to help community members get connected, they hope to keep spirits high.

“We want to decrease the risk for depression,” she said, “and increase utilization of programs that support social, family, spiritual, emotional and physical readiness.”

She said FMWR and partners will be looking for feedback from Soldiers and families regarding the effectiveness of the virtual platform and partnerships in encouraging positive sustainable connections even beyond the holiday season.

Robinson has been a counselor/crisis worker all her life, but she says one of the most fulfilling jobs she’s ever had has been working with the Army.

“Soldiers and their families remind me of work with first responders during disasters,” she said. “They are, hands down, the most well prepared, well trained and resilient group of people I have ever known. They set the example and build the road maps for other civilian agencies and communities to follow.”

She said this is also true for military kids.

“Military kids are natural leaders and take that role during a crisis,” she said. “All we have to do as providers is provide the information and set the stage.”

Robinson said USAG Rheinland-Pfalz has done an exceptional job leading the way for use of social media and Microsoft Teams during the pandemic.

“There is a constant feedback loop from our customers,” she said.

Operation Holiday Connection is being led by USAG Rhineland-Pfalz libraries, with the Service Credit Union providing sponsorship.