Manager retires, Family Programs welcomes new director

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. John Hughel
  • 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
As an eight year old, Mary Bell and her family moved to the Portland Air Force Base in 1961, when her father was reassigned from Spandau Air Force Base, Germany.  Five years later, he was the last active duty Airman on base to help transition the active Air Force alert mission to the Air National Guard.

"They flew an official with all the paperwork along with a photographer from McChord Air Force Base [Washington] to record my dad's retirement, as he was the senior ranking and last person that was still on active duty here," said Bell.

Like her father who retired and facilitated one transformation on base, Bell will soon retire and transition her position as Family Programs Manager to Amy Conroy on Oct. 1.  Bell has been associated in one way or another with the Portland Air Base for more than 54 years and drew on her experience as a military family member when she helped create the Family Programs position 12 years ago with the 142nd Fighter Wing.

It was in early 2002, when Bell returned to the National Guard Base here, and was hired as one of 89 new Family Programs Directors throughout all the U.S. Air National Guard Bases, one per Wing. With the program being new, the plans and objectives were not clear cut but this gave Bell the opportunity to create her position and the program from the ground up.

"After the first year I tried to envision what a family would need so I interviewed my mother, a military spouse, and got a good scope of what was important for military families," she said.

Whether it has been preparing service and family members for deployments or working on reintegration events after deployments or setting up large undertakings such as Family Day and Young America Day on base, Bell's personal touch has been a part of nearly every plan and occasion.

Evoking how leadership has embraced the role of the Family Programs, Bell emphasized, "That this job was an awesome responsibility because the military mission goes on; I got to create something from scratch, not often do you get to do that and have the people back you up to do that."

In the early days when building the program, Bell recalled how, "email was the best and sometimes only way to reach family members." Over the years technology such as smart phones and social media has given family programs new ways to reach out and inform those family and civilian employers about various happenings at the air base.

"We no longer have a base commissary or BX [Base Exchange], there are no child or youth centers here so events like Young America Day are huge, because it allows families direct access to see the mission and interact during the events we organize," said Bell.

Transitioning into the job, Conroy says she has some big shoes to fill but is more than ready for the challenge and opportunity that comes through working with citizen Airmen.

"Getting to start from the foundation that Mary created, I don't have to start from square one, I get to grow from her successes," said Conroy.

Having worked the last four years in child and youth programs with the Oregon National Guard in Salem, Oregon, Conroy's varied background made her an impressive successor for the Family Programs position. Like Bell, she was instrumental in creating programs like the Oregon Military Teen Panel and coordinated youth camps, workshops and outdoor programs for families of deployed members. 

"Working with the Oregon National Guard, I've been able to create and think outside the box, allowing me to create fun and unique programs and bring it into the military setting for the first time," she said.

Having played college basketball, Conroy has also been a college assistant coach and has a master's in adolescent brain development and adventure based programs from the California State University-Chico. She also has social work experience with child and foster care case management.

Both Bell and Conroy feel that one of the most neglected areas within the Air National Guard involves funding for child and youth programs. "There has been a gap in youth service and I think that the resources and attention is moving in that direction," said Conroy.

The family readiness program has been an important piece not only for family members but also for Airmen who need to concentrate on their jobs and the overall mission, she said.

"That is our job where we [at family programs] can assist our military members who have crucial and intense jobs," Conroy said.  "Knowing that their family is taken care of allows them to focus and be confident in their jobs, thus making everyone in the family feel supported."

As Bell hands off "her baby" to Conroy, she said the job is already in good hands: "Amy is going to do a fabulous job. I just wanted to make sure I turned it over to somebody who is going to love it as much as I do."

Pausing to reflect on her time with the Wing, Bell said what she is going to miss most about the job are the people. "Consummate professionals. They love what they do, they are good at it, and they made my job really easy."