Spirit of volunteerism is alive and well at the Middle East District

Published Jan. 11, 2021
MSG Shantae Allen describes some key timeline events on the road to voting rights for other disenfranchised groups of Americans. This was part of the display developed by the Middle East District's Federal Women's Program Committee to mark Women's Equality Day in August.

MSG Shantae Allen describes some key timeline events on the road to voting rights for other disenfranchised groups of Americans. This was part of the display developed by the Middle East District's Federal Women's Program Committee to mark Women's Equality Day in August.

Robyn Ratchford, 20-year volunteer at the Middle East District, stands between her two daughters and major helpers following a successful 2019 holiday party for the District, while TAM Commander COL Philip Secrist in holiday garb, applauds their efforts, ingenuity, and creativity. Ratchford is the backbone and heavy muscle of the District's Employees Activities Association.

Robyn Ratchford, 20-year volunteer at the Middle East District, stands between her two daughters and major helpers following a successful 2019 holiday party for the District, while TAM Commander COL Philip Secrist in holiday garb, applauds their efforts, ingenuity, and creativity. Ratchford is the backbone and heavy muscle of the District's Employees Activities Association.

Volunteers are vital to organizational strength and the spirit of volunteerism is alive and well at the Middle East District.

The Transatlantic Middle East District’s (TAM) mission statement explains what the District does, where and why it does it. TAM provides design, construction execution, and related services and support to mission partners within the U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility in order to increase regional security and stability in support of enduring U.S. interests in the region.

The ‘how’ of the equation relies on District personnel staying technically qualified in their specific areas of expertise.  But there’s also another vital but less tangible component of TAM’s success.

These are all tasks not directly covered by the mission statement but that help meet many miscellaneous objectives and generally improve the overall work climate in the District. These rely entirely on team members’ passion and volunteer spirit to be accomplished. Just a few examples include:

  • Maintaining and improving team members’ morale and sense of camaraderie through Employee Council, Employees Activities Association, Sunshine Committee;
  • Reaching out to the local communities and involving them in STEM-related activities through actions of the STEM Coordinator and High School Intern Program Manager;
  • Maintaining TAM’s bench full of qualified engineers and technicians through volunteers for recruiting trips and missions;
  • Taking part in national charity events each year through the federal Combined Federal Campaign;
  • Addressing historical milestones and cultural celebrations that weave us all together through individual special emphasis programs.

"Individually, these tasks will not make or break our mission, but the cumulative effect of all of them and the volunteers who lead them, make us much stronger as an organization,” said District Commander Col. Philip Secrist. “They build morale, make us more diverse and culturally aware, give thousands of dollars back to the community through the CFC and build a pipeline of future engineers. None of these are found in our mission statement but they are a vital part of our strength as an organization."

One of the most familiar of these tasks to nearly all Team TAM members is the Employees Activities Association. This long-standing committee helps build cohesive team-mindedness through fun activities and events, fostering a sense of shared purpose and esprit de corps. The EAA manages a snack bar, raising money which goes back into the EAA and is used to pay for team events, such as the Corps Day picnics and holiday parties.

Robyn Ratchford, a contract management specialist in Contracting Directorate and the current EAA chairperson/president, has been actively involved with EAA for 20 of her 30 years at TAM. She explained that her involvement started as an assignment, but has continued because of her desire to help, fill a void, and make life at TAM better for all.

“Organizing everything about the annual picnic used to be the responsibility of different offices within the organization, rotating each year among the larger divisions. When it was Contracting’s turn to lead that effort, the Contracting Director assigned it to me to take on. After that year, I kind of just stayed on assisting the EAA and my role got more involved over time. The EAA needed help and there weren’t a lot of volunteers jumping up and down to do it. I wanted to help out with morale and give back to the organization by providing employees with something to look forward to and enjoy each year.”

Ratchford also volunteers on the Employee Council and serves as a liaison between the two. She’s always involved with both organizations, regardless of whether she’s holding an actual position. And through this volunteer work, she’s learned to be more outgoing.

“Believe it or not, I am not a people person and actually am a bit of an introvert, very secure in my small circle of friends,” she said. “Being involved with the EAA has given me the opportunity to be a little more outgoing and to develop friendships and learn about other people that I would probably not have taken advantage of otherwise.” 

Other team members pretty much walked through the lobby on their first day with their hands raised, like Equal Employment Opportunity specialist Anneliese Mielke. She volunteered for the Federal Women’s Program and the Employee Council nearly two years ago, matching her time with the District. And now, she’s acquired the lead role in TAM’s LDP Tier I program.

“I was one of the graduates of the Leadership Development Class of 2020,” she said. “Teaching the LDP class was my follow-on assignment although I have always expressed an interest in it. I always believe everything is what you put in to it, and utilizing volunteer opportunities is exactly how to do that.  And I’ve learned a lot about other people’s roles and their jobs, which has led to a truer perspective on how everything and everyone fits together.”

Another recent LDP graduate, Angelivette Nieves-Viruet, was assigned to be TAM’s Combined Federal Campaign Manager in October, just before the start of the 2020 CFC campaign.

“TAM leaders evaluated my performance during LDP and determined this position would be my utilization assignment, and I have to tell you, it fits me perfectly! I enjoy people,” she said. “I am very service-oriented and if I had the opportunity to pick, I probably would have chosen to be the leader of this campaign. Helping others is fulfilling and CFC gives us the opportunity to get together and make a collective impact.”

Nieves-Viruet is an architect in Engineering Division’s Site and Building Design Branch, having started with TAM as a DA Intern nearly three years ago.

“Serving as CFC campaign manager has allowed me to apply many of the leadership skills I have been nourishing for the past few years. It’s about steering a team and allowing us to make an impact at TAM through CFC. I have learned a lot from my teammates. In my daily job, leading a group of people comes less frequently but with CFC, I have eight teammates, all of us very busy with our daily jobs. I’ve had to manage time effectively and find strategic ways of motiving my coworkers to join the CFC community and utilize all virtual platforms out there in order to be heard. This year has definitely been a challenge since we’re in the middle of a pandemic and everything is virtual.  Fortunately, this has motivated us to be even more creative with our flyers, our written communications and the audience for our events.

“On a more personal note, being the CFC CM has made me more humane. For example, while trying to build a house out of candy canes and realizing how difficult it was, I had this thought: Building a house is difficult, imagine a home. Many times we take the things we have for granted. Even worse, sometimes we think we deserve them just because. Whether it’s through CFC or directly with the charities out there, we need to help others and be the face of change.”

A third LDP graduate, Garrison Myer, recently joined the Employee Council and serves as the High School Intern Program Manager. The program takes local high school students with an interest in engineering and encourages them to pursue their passion by offering them opportunities to be mentored by USACE engineers and learn while working on their own projects using the same Engineering tools USACE uses.  

“When the team member who had been handling the high school intern program left TAM, I volunteered to take on that role because I love teaching and STEM outreach,” Myer said. “To be able to show these brilliant young men and women what we do at the Army Corps of Engineers and what they can do if they succeed in college is a very rewarding and fulfilling experience.  I love being able to see the growth in the high school students from the time they begin their internship to completion. 

“I volunteered for the TAM Employee Council because I wanted to be able to give input and make a difference here at the District. I have seen all of the great work the Council has put in throughout the years and I wanted to contribute to that,” he said.

“I took on both of these assignments to better myself and the District with no outside influences,” Myer said. “My LDP assignment however, is concerning the High School Intern Program.  I have been assigned to formalize the processes in the High School Intern Program, from selection of students all the way through advertising our Summer Hire Positions to past high school interns. I am very excited for this assignment as it is something that I have started in the past and this will be a more in-depth look at formalizing all of the processes.

“A lot of what I have learned, particularly from the High School Intern Program, is managerial.  I act as a mentor to the High School Interns, but my main job is making sure that the entire internship goes well and is a good and beneficial experience for the student and all other TAM staff involved,” he said.

Different people volunteer for all sorts of reasons – some because it fits well with an existing interest they have and sometimes it’s just because a need is recognized and someone wants to help fill it. Joe Macri, the District's Special Emphasis Program Manager for the Asian American and Pacific Islander Special Emphasis Program fits into the latter.

"It's a common misconception that to volunteer for a special emphasis program you must be that ethnicity or be in that cultural group,” he said. “Other than attending special emphasis events, I'd never considered being part of one of the SEP committees or programs. But three or four years ago, the organization was looking for someone and since no one else volunteered, I thought I'd give it a try. It's been a great way to continue to learn and get to know some of my coworkers."

For others, volunteering is a perfectly natural match of personality to duties. For instance, Laura Harlow, a specifications specialist working in Engineering Division’s Technical Services branch since 2007, heads up the District’s Sunshine Committee. This group requires a very caring person, willing to reach out during potentially troubling times with greeting cards and flowers to team members under various circumstances.

“In 2013, a team member approached me about helping the EAA with the Sunshine Committee because they thought it would fit with me,” Harlow said. “I hadn’t really thought about volunteering for it before that, but was honored that they approached me. It really is just an extension of who I am and I am glad to be a small part of giving comfort or cheer during a team member's sorrowful situation or tough time – although the best part is to help celebrate new babies! I treat everything confidentially, and sometimes I feel like I know too much but I cannot and do not share that information. In one way, I feel the burden, but the other way I look at it, is that I’m hopefully providing a small bit of comfort to another human being in pain.”

TAM senior budget analyst in Resource Management, Molly Lockhart volunteered to be the special emphasis manager for the Federal Women’s Program two years ago because she wanted to contribute to the organization in some way.

She said that one of the benefits of volunteering has been the ability to work with others outside of my work group. “This has been a great experience, very rewarding. I am in awe of the team we’ve built and the talented people that we have working at TAM.”

While the ratio of the District’s military to civilian employees is small, military volunteers are very well represented. Master Sgt. Shantae Allen has always volunteered for additional responsibilities and currently serves on the Employee Council, the Federal Women’s Program Committee, the Family Readiness Group and she’s involved with the Leadership Development Program Tier 3.

“I volunteer to make a difference,” Allen said. “I love being involved in having a positive, significant impact on the people of my organization. I feel that I am doing a disservice if I’m not involved and being of some type of influence. Providing support to the command’s initiatives and programs is one of my priorities as their senior NCO so that I can be an extension of them, ensuring that cohesion and team building is maintained and morale is high.”

Allen, who is serving in a dual assignment as contract specialist in Contracting Directorate’s Services Branch, is also the Senior Enlisted Advisor for all of USACE military contracting professionals, 51Cs.

“LDP3 is providing me with the necessary tools to expand as a leader,” Allen said. “I have a master’s degree in Leadership but LDP3 exposes me to a different perspective that will be beneficial to me in preparation of Sergeant Major as well as post-military. This program provides meaning to my daily tasks in awarding contracts and seeing how what I do fits into accomplishing the overall mission from a strategic operative.”

Team TAM’s dedicated employees form a large pool of volunteers all have one common denominator: a desire to make a difference and make their organization a better place to work for everyone.