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Great Falls Great Friends help Airmen find a ‘home away from home’ in Montana

Airman 1st Class Ginelle Metiviet, 341st Missile Security Forces Squadron (left) talks with Carol Berg, her Great Falls Great Friends sponsor April 28. The program was launched in October and matches Airmen in the grades of E-1 through E-5 and O-1 through O-3 with civilian volunteers from the Great Falls community.  (U.S. Air Force photo / John Turner)

Airman 1st Class Ginelle Metiviet, 341st Missile Security Forces Squadron (left) talks with Carol Berg, her Great Falls Great Friends sponsor April 28. The program was launched in October and matches Airmen in the grades of E-1 through E-5 and O-1 through O-3 with civilian volunteers from the Great Falls community. (U.S. Air Force photo / John Turner)

MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. -- When Airman 1st Class Ginelle Metiviet arrived at Malmstrom Air Force Base one year ago to begin her assignment with the 341st Missile Security Forces Squadron, she was immediately struck by how very different Great Falls, Montana, is from her hometown of New York City.

"Where I'm from, there's a lot of people and there is a lot to do," Metiviet said. "It's a very big city surrounded with a lot of buildings and music."

Now stationed thousands of miles from her family in Manhattan, New York, and the fast-paced metropolitan culture of the city, Metiviet's time was soon occupied by her work schedule and an expanding network of military friends, many of whom, like Metiviet, live on base and in the dorms. With time, she began to look for ways to involve herself more in the local community and to explore what Montana has to offer.

In December, a chief master sergeant in Metiviet's squadron told her about Great Falls Great Friends, a new program that was launched in October. GFGF seeks to match new military members--airman basic through staff sergeant, and second lieutenant through captain--with civilian sponsors from Great Falls who volunteer to be ambassadors of the community. These sponsors develop interpersonal relationships with Airmen, guide them around the local area, and help them cultivate their interests while they are here.

"The whole point [of GFGF] is to get these young Airmen involved in the community, get them off the installation and get them out of their dorms," said Lori Muzzana, 341st Missile Wing community support coordinator. "A brand new airman here at Malmstrom, whether enlisted or officer, is matched with a community member."

The program is not just for single Airmen, Muzzana said. She has paired families, which has given children and spouses a sponsor also.

Currently, the pool of community sponsors is limited to Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce members, Department of Defense civilian employees, and military retirees. It is preferable that the sponsors have some understanding of the military culture.

The program interested Metiviet. She enrolled in GFGF to be matched with a sponsor.

"Being away from home, I definitely like to meet new people," Metiviet said. "I want to get involved in the place I am living. Just because I live on base, yes, I am a resident of Montana, but I won't really be able to experience Montana and the people unless I am really involved in the community. This is one of the great programs that helps me do that."

Within weeks of applying for the program, Metiviet was matched to Carol Berg and the pair instantly clicked.

Berg learned about GFGF at a faculty meeting at the University of Great Falls where she works. She applied to be a sponsor soon after, recalling when her own daughter was in the military and stationed in a new place.

"When [my daughter] was in the Army I had always hoped that there would be a local community person that could have been kind of a family for her," Berg said, "So I wanted to be a family for an Airman. I was lucky, I got Ginelle."

Metiviet and Berg have shared meals and movies, enjoyed outings to Giant Springs and the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, and recently attended Western Art Week together. Berg is enthusiastic about all the places she wants to take Metiviet this summer, including Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks.

"I like to share Montana with other people," Berg said. "I like to meet people from other places."

"One of the great things I love about Carol is that she is so inviting and welcoming," Metiviet said. "Even though some of my fellow Airmen are not in the program, she invites them to come out with us as well."

A sponsor can make all the difference whether an Airman enjoys their time in Montana, Muzzana said.

"One young man literally told me that he would have hated Malmstrom if it wouldn't have been for the family that he's attached to," she said. "They've gotten him involved and showed him things that he didn't know were around, and invited him over for family dinners."

Muzzana has made 19 matches since the program started. Several more Airmen are enrolled and waiting, she said, but there is a need for sponsors. Most of the sponsors so far have applied through the Chamber of Commerce. Muzzana encourages DoD civilians and retirees to contact her at 731-3481 or email 341MW/CVB@us.af.mil for an application.

Airmen who would like to request a sponsor can submit an online application at http://341fss.com/gfgreatfriends .

There is no requirement on how many times a sponsor and Airman must meet, what activities they must do together or how long they must remain paired, Muzzana said. GFGF is a self-paced, self-guided program.

1st Lt. Mayrem Morales, 10th Missile Squadron deputy missile combat crew commander, and her sponsor were matched in November. They try to meet once a month, usually for lunch or dinner or to attend a local event together. Their pairing has been mutually beneficial because both women are close in age, have similar interests, speak fluent Spanish, and are relatively new to the area. Morales is from Chicago and her sponsor is from Long Beach, California.

"We are both from another city and we are still getting to know Great Falls and Montana," Morales said. "This allows us to compare and suggest things to do. If she hears of something interesting she lets me know, and vice versa."

Morales said that GFGF sponsors can have a positive impact on an Airman's life.

"Many of us are pretty hyped when we first arrive at Malmstrom but then we get accustomed to the mundane day-to-day," Morales said. "Something so minimal as a lunch date once a month can offer insight to a young Airman and really make a difference."

Ultimately, GFGF is about establishing lasting relationships between Airmen and the Great Falls community.

"I've got this great Airman who is part of my family," Berg said. "She'll always be a part of my family, whether she's here or not."

"We'll stay connected," Metiviet said.