A new program offsets costs associated with remote education for military kids.
Army Emergency Relief announced the financial assistance program earlier this year after evaluating the needs of Army families impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. It provides up to $500 per family to defray the costs of supplies purchased for students in K-12. The program is retroactive to March, when many schools started going offline.
Examples of items covered under this program are "traditional educational materials such as pens, paper, and books as well as educational technology including computers, tablets, and software," according to the AER website. Assistance may be provided as a zero-interest loan, grant, or combination.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Raymond Mason, director of AER, said the idea for the program came after a discussion with partners from sister relief societies about COVID-19 support for military families. Eligible soldiers can apply for assistance directly on the AER website.
"We have an online application and that's the first place to start. Once we work the assistance case — usually 12-24 hours, depending on how complicated it is and several other situations — we then send an electronic funds transfer from our bank account directly to the soldier's bank account," he said.
Soldiers from the Army National Guard and Army Reserve who have been mobilized in support of COVID-19 are also eligible to apply, but they must go through their chain of command.
"The chain of command can validate their status, as in they are mobilized in support of COVID-19, and then work it back in through the electronic process," Mason said.
All of the new COVID-19 related programs created by AER — of which there are roughly three dozen — will exist at least until the end of the year, Mason said, and new programs are constantly being added as needs come to light. To date, AER has distributed $632,000 in COVID-19 assistance, and Mason hopes more soldiers will request support.
"What keeps me up at night is that there is some need out there and it isn't coming to us, either because of a communication problem or they are experiencing something that we haven't thought of. We'll always look at exceptions to a policy, so just because you go to our website and it isn't there, don't let that stop you. Come on in," Mason said.
The most common ranks requesting AER assistance are E5s and E6s, but soldiers of any rank are eligible. And Mason is aware that service members can be hesitant to ask for help, which is why AER put a direct access program in place almost four years ago to achieve multiple objectives.
"It [the direct access program] allows soldiers to come to AER without chain of command involvement. It was really two reasons: One, it was the stigma, that survey data supports about asking for help, and secondly it was to get soldiers to come to us and not go to predatory lenders.
"Asking for help is a sign of strength."