Feeney honored for services to war college families
As a sponsor for foreign offi- cers and families of the Naval War College in Newport, Millie Feeney of Jamestown, introduces international families “to the American lifestyle.”
Over the past year, Feeney has had a wide range of experiences— from learning recipes for Indian curries to studying the garments of Muslim women, and even introducing foreign children to the American tradition of Halloween.
For her contributions in the sponsor program, Feeney was recently named Sponsor of the Year for the Class of 2009. “The voting for the award was by the offi cers and the award was presented by the admiral, which was really nice,” Feeney said. “I was very happy and very humbled.”
According to Feeney, the offi cers are “hand-picked to attend the war college” and are “the top of their country.” Feeney says the officers are “world-traveled and multi-linguists” as all classes at the NWC are taught in English.
“They want to come here,” Feeney said. “It’s their chance to see America.” Feeney has sponsored officers from across the globe. Egypt, Korea, Chile, Turkey, Tanzania, New Zealand, India, and Bangladesh, are merely a handful of the countries from which her 33 families originated.
As a civilian sponsor, Feeney says she serves as a helpful hand, sense of direction and local guide for the foreign families. “I show them where to shop and where they can find great bargains,” she said. “I also take them to cookouts, weddings, funerals and church.”
Feeney says she likes to show the families the Jamestown and St. Patrick’s Day parades, take them to Second and Mackerel Cove beaches and go to Water Fire in Providence. “I think to myself, ‘If I was living here for 10 or 11 months with my family, what I would want to do and what memories would I want to take home?’”
Feeney stressed the importance of sponsors in making the families feel comfortable in a new and often intimidating environment. “Imagine arriving in a country,” she said. “You know no one. You’re going to be there for 10 months with your family. You wonder ‘Will they like it?’ ‘Will I be accepted?’ ‘Where do I go?’”
The sponsor program attempts to alleviate the fears surrounding the relocation to America. Sponsors start immediately making the families feel at home by ensuring that a friendly face is the first they see coming off their flight. “When you greet them at the airport, they light up when they see their flag,” Feeney said of meeting the families when they get off the plane. “I pick them up and take them to the base.”
“I give them that initial contact,” Feeney said. “I say here’s my number. You can call me anytime. I leave a greeting basket at their room with toys for the kids, juices, fruit and cheese.”
Feeney says that in addition to making the families comfortable, she is able to show families what America is really about as a sponsor. “I show them how normal we are,” because they sometimes come with preconceived notions of America and Americans, Feeney says. “They’re surprised because a lot of them feel Americans don’t value family life and we do.”
Feeney says another great activity she brings families to is potluck cookouts. “It’s a really great time for family,” she said. “And it gives the wives of the families a chance to show us (Americans) their skills in the kitchen.”
Especially at cookouts, Feeney says she is “very sensitive” to the “cultures and belief systems” of the families. “I always make sure to point out things that might have beef or pork or alcohol,” she said.
Feeney says she avoids offending a family’s culture simply by asking them. “I say to them initially, ‘Tell me up front if there is anything you do not eat or do not partake in,’” she said.
Feeney also says that the sponsors are given tips about culture sensitivities to be aware of. “For instance, I know that you wouldn’t pat a Korean child on the top of the head,” she said. “You just learn those things.”
However, Feeney says it’s important to “be herself” while practicing this sensitivity. “I am who I am, too,” she said. “I’ll invite them to an Easter celebration or a Christmas vigil. And I explain that as I am standing, kneeling or sitting, they can do whatever they want. It’s just a cultural thing.”
Feeney says that the volunteer sponsorship is a learning experience for her and the foreign families. “I get to learn how life is in Egypt and they get to see how family life is here, too,” she said.
Feeney is able to see the garments and taste the cooking of over 30 countries while the families are able to experience new traditions and go new places.
According to Feeney, the families have seen “more of America than most Americans” after their time at the NWC. New York City, the United Nations, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Florida and Disneyworld are just some of the places the families travel to during their stay in the U.S. “Imagine a 4-yearold Korean girl seeing Disneyworld for the first time,” Feeney said. “They go home with a different idea about America.”
In addition to the irreplaceable learning experiences, Feeney says the bonds formed with each of her families makes sponsoring “something I love doing.” “I’m kind of like a surrogate mom to these families,” she said. “In fact, a Mexican family asked me to be ‘co-madre,’ the godmother to their children.”
When asked if there was a particular family she had become especially close with, Feeney could not choose. “I’ve bonded with all of the families,” she said. “It’s like trying to pick my favorite child. They all make my heart smile.”
While some of the officers and families return to the command college after several years, some do go home to their native countries.
“It’s hard when they leave,” Feeney said. “But, I never say ‘goodbye.’ It’s always ‘til we meet again.’”