Even before their paths crossed in Abilene, Debra Morotini and Chelsea Lawler were connected.
Morotini retired in 2008 as a chief master sergeant after a 30-year career in the Air Force. Her specialty was aircraft maintenance. Lawler is a senior airman at Dyess Air Force Base, where she has been stationed for three years. She is a fuel systems mechanic for the C-130J cargo planes that fly out of Dyess.
So, it wasn’t much of a stretch when the two women were paired through the Abilene Home Away From Home program that serves Dyess AFB. The private, nonprofit organization was created to assist new airmen at Dyess who are fresh out of technical school or basic training.
Local families “adopt” the airmen and treat them like their own during their stint at Dyess.
For Morotini and Lawler, like so many other “parents” and “adoptees,” the pairing of the two women seemed a match made in heaven.
“She knew immediately she wanted me to be her kid,” Lawler said.
Three years into their relationship, the two women definitely have become a “mother-daughter” pair. When Lawler was deployed, “Mom” sent her so much stuff that she ended up giving some of it away. When a special day rolled around while Lawler was still deployed, she returned the kindness to her “Mom” in Abilene.
“She went online and she ordered flowers that were delivered to me for Mother’s Day,” Morotini recalled.
The Morotini/Lawler story is a beautiful one and, thankfully, it is a typical one. In January, the program had 28 host families and 60 adopted airmen enrolled, said Judy Farmer, who, with her husband, Allan, helped establish the program in Abilene. They are still very much involved, adopting airmen and doing the administrative work. Judy is one of the program’s biggest promoters, always trying to enlist more host families to serve a steady stream of airmen whose first duty station is Dyess AFB.
“We just want them to have a place to go that’s family and that’s home,” Farmer said
The search for family
The Abilene program was an initiative of former Dyess Commander Michael Bob Starr, who served in that role from 2014 until he retired in November 2015. In the spring of 2015, Starr attended a commander’s conference, where he heard about a similar program at Tinker AFB in Oklahoma City. That program was modeled after the Sponsor Family Program at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Starr remembered how much he appreciated his host family when he was a cadet.
The program at Tinker AFB originally was established on base and was run by the Air Force. The original version failed, but found new life when it was reestablished as an off-base program run by the community. Starr served four assignments at Dyess, beginning as a student B-1 pilot in 1997, and was well aware of the relationship between the air base and the citizens of Abilene.
“I knew if any community would support a program like this,” Starr said, “it would be Abilene.”
Even with his multiple responsibilities as base commander, Starr undertook the job of getting the paperwork done for the Abilene Home Away From Home program to become an official nonprofit organization.
“We started with a small cadre of initial host families, including the Farmers and the Morotinis in the fall of 2016,” Starr said, “and officially launched the program in 2017.”
Today, Starr and his wife, Angela Nicolini, have four official adoptees and two other airmen who often attend gatherings. They have discovered, like the other host families, that the airmen mainly prefer a real family experience–meal at the host family home, combined with movies or sports events on TV–to any other form of entertainment.
That sense of family seems to be the most important aspect of the program. Steven Melo grew up with four siblings. His parents live in Mays Landing, New Jersey, which is far from Abilene, Texas. He arrived at Dyess AFB in November 2016 and learned about the Home Away From Home program during in-processing.
“I thought it was something good to do,” he said.
It has turned out to be much more. The original family he was paired with moved, and he was adopted by Allan and Judy Farmer, who already had adopted one of Melo’s friends. At gatherings in the Farmer home, the conversation often is about what the Farmer family members are up to, which Melo loves. It reminds him of home.
In February, Melo was transferred to Osan Air Base in South Korea, a bittersweet time for Melo. The move meant a new adventure in a foreign land, but it also meant leaving behind the Farmer family that he grew to love in his five-plus years at Dyess. He knew that even though his biological family was far away in New Jersey, he had local “parents” to call on.
“If I needed anything, they would be there for me,” Melo said. “The door’s always open.”
It’s been that way from the beginning of the program for Allan and Judy Farmer. And, it was a bittersweet moment for both the Farmers and Melo when he left.
“He’s in all our Christmas pictures,” Judy Farmer said.
The key to a successful pairing of airmen and families lies in making sure from the beginning that it’s a good match. The application process is designed to ensure that happens. Both the potential host family and the airmen list interests so that a good match can be made.
“We want both sides to be happy with it,” Farmer said.
Besides a home away from home, the host family introduces the airmen to what’s available in Abilene and sometimes takes the adoptees on family vacations. A good match most often leads to a long-term relationship.
Several months ago, one of the Farmers’ first adoptees, who is no longer at Dyess, was traveling to California and called to see if he could stop by. His parents were so pleased that their son had been “adopted” in Abilene, that they had a warning for him: “If you go by Abilene and don’t stop to see them, you’re in trouble!”
Debra and Al Morotini and Judy and Allan Farmer have no doubt that all the adoptees they have hosted since the program started will stay in contact. The journey has been too rewarding for everyone. Debra’s soulmate, Chelsea Lawler, is from Peoria, Arizona, and trained for three months at Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls before being assigned to Dyess three years ago. Lawler now has a boyfriend and three dogs, but she was alone when she first arrived at Dyess. The idea of being adopted by a local family was appealing.
“This is one of the things they talk about,” during in-processing, Lawler said. “I was immediately interested.”
The Home Away From Home program has grown, both in size, and in scope since its founding. Originally, only single airmen were accepted but now married couples are accepted. The Morotinis at one time had two young men from Ghana as adoptees. One of them got married in Ghana, brought his wife to Abilene, and then became a father. When he was deployed, his wife and baby had a family in Abilene to care for them while he was away.
From one generation to the next
In short, the Home Away From Home program at Dyess AFB is exactly the kind of program that Debra and Al Morotini wished they had had when they were young airmen. They met on the Match.com dating website 11 years ago and one of the things they had in common was a military background. In fact, their lives are so influenced by the military that they chose a significant date in American history to get married: 11-11-11. Nov. 11 is Veterans Day in the United States and also recalls the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 when the armistice was signed ending World War I. Debra started her career at Keesler AFB in Mississippi and Al spent a lot of time in overseas assignments. Debra didn’t recall getting many invitations to people’s home as a young airman.
“If you were lucky,” she said, “you might have had a supervisor that would have you over for the holidays.”
Those memories are the reason Debra was quick to jump on board with the Abilene Home Away From Home program when it was introduced. She currently is president of the board.
Judy Farmer had a different experience. Her father had a 30-year Air Force career, which meant moving a lot when Judy was growing up. It also meant she developed a deep love for the military. So, when Judy moved to Abilene in 2004, she knew she wanted to become involved with Dyess AFB. She was on the first board of directors for the Home Away From Home program and is honorary commander for the 7th Bomb Wing Command Chief, a program sponsored by the Military Affairs Committee of the Abilene Chamber of Commerce. Judy and Allan have a blended family, and everyone accepts and loves the
“We feel like they’re our sons,” Judy said.
Everyone involved with the program, from the founder, Michael Bob Starr, to the host families, to the adoptees, touts its importance. And, they encourage other local families to get involved. Starr, who once was commander of Dyess AFB, promises a lasting friendship and a fresh perspective on what it’s like to be in the Air Force.
Terry Myers, aka Terry Diamond at KBCY radio, is on the board of Abilene Home Away From Home. Her husband, Paul, is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, and they both have a love for the program. They don’t currently have any adoptees but have had in the past. They guarantee that the experience will be rewarding for host families who sign up. And, Terry promises it isn’t hard at all.
“They just love on the kids,” she said. “That’s the main thing.”
By Loretta Fulton
Photography By Shayli Anne Photography