This Veteran-Founded Nonprofit Recognizes High School Students’ Decision to Join the Military

School districts, high schools and families rightly make a big deal about students getting accepted to college. But universities aren’t the only destination for graduating high school seniors.

One “old soldier” from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, decided he would do something to recognize those students.

“I organized a dinner for all the kids in our county in 2009,” said Dr. Kenneth Hartman, who was on the Cherry Hill School Board. “It was an amazing amount; there were 200-300 people there for 60 kids.”

That dinner was the beginning of what would become Our Community Salutes, or OCS. Soon after, a woman in Pittsburgh called Hartman, looking for help on how to arrange a similar event. By the following year, word had spread — in a seemingly exponential way.

“So we went from the 10 to 20, then to 30 to 40 and to 50 locations all over the country,” Hartman said. “And over the past 12 years now, we’ve honored literally tens of thousands of high school enlistees. Hundreds of thousands of people attended these events nationwide.”

The OCS 2020 Virtual Event reached more than 110,000 viewers, according to Hartman. The event, hosted by former NFL player and comedic actor Terry Crews, featured then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper, the U.S. Army Field Band and more.

The recognition is having an effect on those who enlist. According to the OCS, recruiters and recruits alike say the dinners reinforce graduates’ decision to enlist, and recruiting offices see fewer dropouts in areas where OCS events are held. Recruiters say the quality of the ceremony and positive reinforcement is having an impact on mission readiness.

Perhaps most importantly, it has an impact on parents. While many parents support their children’s decisions to join the military, some still waiver. After seeing an OCS dinner and send-off, some uncertain parents find themselves fully supporting the enlistments.

The OCS program has grown to be more than a one-night event to honor the students. These days, OCS alumni are able to stay tough long after they enter the service through OCS Connect, the organization’s online portal.

More than a niche social network, OCS Connect offers new enlistees ways to personally better themselves and further their military careers. It features discussion groups, webinars, videos and written content designed to help them navigate their benefits, become financially literate with their new paychecks and stay the course with the reasons they joined the military in the first place.

“What do you do with a kid who gets a $40,000 signing bonus? There really was no place for new service members and their parents to go,” Hartman recalls. “We asked the parents what they wished they would have known before their kids joined the military and an important one was financial literacy. The other was college and career planning.”

OCS is closely connected to individual recruiting offices in the areas where events have been held, but hopes to be connected at a departmental level in the future. Getting connected with the military branches would help OCS in its biggest struggle, one faced by most community nonprofits: fundraising.

“Support for what we’re doing is huge,” Hartman said. “We do what we can with what we have, but for individuals and companies to support us with a donation would be even bigger. Help us get to people, be our partners and support us in any way you can.”

For more information about Our Community Salutes, to hold a ceremony in your community or to donate to the cause, visit the OCS website.

— Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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