“The history of the Air Force Villages Charitable Foundation is the history of Blue Skies of Texas. They’re so intertwined, it’s impossible to see them separately,” says Director of Development Jennifer Matthews. While you may be familiar with the community’s commitment to support Air Force members and their families during retirement, you might not have noticed how the charity’s mission has grown over the last 50 years. This inherent social consciousness attracts residents, visitors, and employees alike—and Jennifer Matthews was no exception. Learn more about how she continues to implement the practice of “taking care of our own” in her role as the head of Blues Skies’ charitable subsidiary.
When the Blue Skies of Texas story began in 1961, the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) that provides financial support to military spouses and other dependents did not yet exist. In fact, it wouldn’t be introduced until 1972. Yet, General Curtis LeMay, his wife Mrs. Helen Lemay, and their friends had already noticed a troubling trend. The husbands and wives of former military personnel—even those of high rank, such as generals—were struggling after losing their spouses. Many had to re-enter the workforce in their fifties and sixties to support themselves. “They were saying, ‘This is wrong. We really need a place for people to go should they need it. We need to take care of our Air Force Family,’” according to Matthews.
After several years of planning and campaigning, the Air Force Village (AFV) Foundation was officially incorporated as a non-profit organization. With contributions from Air Force Officer’s Wives’ Clubs around the world, an unwavering commitment to the mission, and donations totaling one million dollars, Air Force Village I, now known as Blue Skies of Texas East, welcomed its first 12 residents in 1970. Dubbed the “Dirty Dozen,” this group of 10 widows and 2 widowers were the first to fully experience the generosity of the Air Force Widow’s Fund. To this day, donations gifted to Blue Skies continue to enhance the lives of residents.
“Of course, this whole time we’re accepting Air Force widows and widowers onto our campus at no cost to themselves. The programs are totally anonymous—and always have been,” says Matthews. “Our employees in healthcare never know if they’re caring for someone who’s on assistance or not. I don’t even know who’s receiving financial assistance today.” As the community expanded in the 1980s, they began to welcome a wider range of residents. Many of the original supporters of Air Force Village I enjoyed the friendships fostered throughout planning so much that wanted to move in early. At this time, implementing steps that would preserve anonymity at Blue Skies became even more important.
“Actually, one of the biggest things for the Air Force Villages Charitable Foundation is dignity, and we don’t wait for people to get to zero. It’s not just about making sure they have food on the table and healthcare. We want to make sure that they also have a modest budget for clothes, personal care, and other expenses. If we’re just focused on meeting the bare basic needs, then we’re detracting from that anonymity and the overall quality of life we want everyone to enjoy at Blue Skies,” explains Matthews. The energy and spirit of camaraderie that radiates through the community illustrates this strategy has clearly been successful.
Putting the “Fun” in Fundraising
One of the most consistent features of Blue Skies of Texas, even before that was the community’s official name, has always been its fun atmosphere. The same fundraisers that the founders originally hosted—and enjoyed so much that they decided to make their campus permanent home—still carry on in some way today. From the Little Black Dress events to the Valentine’s Day fundraisers and golf tournaments, Matthews has kept these traditions alive even in the midst of COVID-19. Coming in as the director of development just prior the pandemic, she says, “I had a couple of months to see the high energy life that they have here at Blue Skies. But as we were getting ready to plan and execute some of the larger events in 2020, we had to quickly adapt.”
By pivoting to drive-up and/or virtual events, she was able to maintain momentum. Utilizing grant funding to enhance healthcare, as well as more general programming within the community, was another supportive strategy she implemented. Most importantly, though, the residents have been an unwavering source of support and positivity during these challenging times. When asked about her favorite experience thus far, Matthews explains, “I don’t know if there’s any one memory. I just love when I get to hang out with the residents because they’re so energetic, so fun. They genuinely want to get to know you and be a part of your life. There are real friendships here—not just transactional relationships—and we’re partnering together to do good things around our campus.”
Improving the Lives of Employees
Although it started well before the pandemic, the motto of “We take care of our own” that grew with the community has played a pivotal role in the lives of many Blue Skies employees. Over the past few years, Matthews noticed an increase in requests for assistance from onsite staff. Fortunately, the Air Force Villages Charitable Foundation has funds specifically for employee emergencies, scholarships, and appreciation. “Even though we promised to keep everyone employed during the pandemic, that doesn’t mean someone’s spouse didn’t lose their job,” she said. Those who found themselves in need of financial assistance—whether it was related to COVID-19 or not—had the option to apply for emergency funds multiple times while employed within the community.
There’s also a “tip fund” that’s distributed to hourly staff in every department on a biannual basis; it’s also supported entirely by residents. “In the first couple months of COVID-19, we ended up setting a record for our Employee Appreciation Fund. That goes directly back to our hardworking frontline employees, so people like our healthcare workers, dining staff, maintenance, front desk…they were all able to reap the rewards of our residents’ generosity,” explains Matthews. The list of beneficial programs managed by the Air Force Villages Charitable Foundation goes on and on, but together they form a holistic approach to caring for community that’s central to the Blue Skies mission.
We are incredibly thankful for the many generous donors, including the Air Force Assistance Fund and Officers’ and combined Spouses’ Clubs across the world, who have already contributed to our charitable organization. If you’re interested in continuing our legacy of support, you can make a donation directly to the foundation or call our Office of Development at (210) 568-3211 to learn more. There are so many exciting opportunities currently available at the Blue Skies of Texas; see what residents have to say about their experiences and schedule your tour today.