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Serving the people who serve

When Jared Kuyper deployed for Iraq a few years ago he signed his mother up to lead his unit's Family Readiness group. He figured she'd be better off if she had something to keep her busy. Figured she'd worry less about him and how he was doing.

He was right, but Annette Kuyper's dedication to helping military families has extended well beyond her son's safe return. A little over a year ago, Kuyper led a group to establish a Beyond the Yellow Ribbon campaign in Farmington. Last December, Farmington became Minnesota's first Yellow Ribbon City, a recognition of that group's efforts to help the families of military men and women serving overseas, and to help those soldiers adjust to life at home once they return. With Veterans Day this week, we talked with Annette to see how things are going and what's on the horizon for the group.

How did you end up getting so involved?

My son was deployed and I helped support the families during the deployment of his unit, which comprised about 12 service members and their families. I noticed family members were not getting the support they needed. They weren't getting support in the workplace. They were struggling with basic needs to take care of a house and children. I did not want that to happen within my own community, so I began the program and the Farmington community has responded wonderfully in supporting our families and servicemembers.

Have you got a pretty good group now?

We have a group of about 25 that serves as the core committee that makes up all across the community -- business leaders, law enforcement, city, military families, school representatives. And then we've got about 130 volunteers that help either with events or support.

What kinds of things have you done over the last year? What has the program accomplished?

We've held two events that are going to go on every year, which is the military mother/grandmother lunch and military family picnic at the Dakota County fairgrounds. We have directly assisted over 45 families with anything from yard work, handyman services, moving, plumbing, painting, that kind of thing. We've also recognized our Vietnam veterans and we've held many events to not only recognize veterans and their families but to educate the community, such as bringing in speakers to educate the community to military issues.

You've got some good things coming up, right?

On Dec. 6 we have our first holiday cookie walk at the TC Davis Manor bed and breakfast, where we're asking the community to bring cookies for a cookie exchange and donate cookies where we're going to make baskets for military families. On Dec. 19 we have breakfast with Santa at the Rosemount Community Center. We're also working on two new projects. One is partnering with business leaders in the community to ask what they can do for military families, anything from a discount to skills and services. We're also partnering with our churches to bring them in and find ways that we can support people within the church communities.

Another thing you mentioned was a mentorship program you're working on.

After the first of the year we're going to take a look at how you can mentor older and younger veterans and we're working on a project to be able to do that in the local community.

Mentor in what way?

Just bringing older and newer veterans together to help support each other and form relationships and just help reintegrating in the community when they return from a deployment.

Have you gotten some interest in that, or are you still looking for people?

We're still looking for people to mentor. We're going to ask the churches to perhaps host some dinners to bring them together. That will tie into our church partnership program as well.

Have you seen a lot of need for the things you're putting together?

Absolutely. In two ways. The first way is just wonderful volunteers who are willing to give of their time. Wonderful volunteers who have come to help with a variety of tasks we need. Second, there is a need. We have so many military families who need help and they don't know where to turn. Often times it's a spouse who's home with kids, works full time and has a house to take care of and just can't do it all while their soldier is deployed.

Do you feel like you've accomplished some good stuff?

We have accomplished a lot. Farmington remains the only Yellow Ribbon City in the state of Minnesota. Many other cities are trying to live up to the standard we have set to be a Yellow Ribbon City. I get calls from all over the state at least twice a week to ask how we got started, how we were organized and to this day we remain the only one because everyone else can't live up to what Farmington has been able to accomplish.

Good for us.

I know. (Laughs) And that's really true.

It's obviously a lot of work for you. Are you enjoying it?

Really enjoying it. It's gotten a lot easier as our core committee has matured. We're getting more structured. We're working to become a 501 3c nonprofit organization that has been so beneficial to define roles within the core committee. To be able to divide the tasks and what's needed and look to our volunteers.

It seems like you're doing a lot of good work.

I think the leadership from the mayor and city council, the support from the city has been phenomenal and key to our success.