FORT POLK, LA — A group of Fort Polk residents have found a way to create a large family atmosphere, while at the same time saving money and providing a much-appreciated support system for young families struggling to make ends meet in a new location — often much different from the one they came from. The end result: For these seven Families, Fort Polk is truly the best hometown in the Army.
What started as a chance meeting when a dog ran from its home has turned into a nightly communal event. Each evening, seven Fort Polk Families gather at the home of Pfc. Jon and Sara Helms to cook and eat dinner, and provide friendship, conversation — and if needed, a shoulder to cry on — for each other.
Helms said one day her neighbor, Cassie Cazessus, confided to her that she and her husband, Spc. Adrian Cazessus, and their two children — Maks, 10 months, and Liam, 20 months — were running short on food and it was still a couple of days until payday.
“We had plenty of food so we invited them over,” Helms said. “We started, just the two couples, eating and cooking together. Other people began joining and it grew.”
Once the group began planning meals and grocery shopping trips together, they learned the truth of the old adage that you can feed two just as cheap as one.
“Once we made a list and divided it up, each of us spent about $50 for two weeks worth of meals,” she said. “Before that, we were spending $150 to $200 for the same number of meals.”
For Lee Dillenback, who is pregnant with her second child and whose husband, 1st Lt. Daniel Dillenback, is deployed to Afghanistan with the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, not only is she saving money, she now has a support group she can turn to at any time.
“I met Cassie at a mommy group,” Dillenback said. “We became good friends, and when my husband deployed, I didn’t like to eat alone with just my son (Aiden, 2). Cassie invited me over here and I really enjoy it.”
Dillenback said a recent episode points out how close knit the group has become.
“Last Sunday, I lost my wallet,” she said. “I have no ID, money, credit cards, nothing, yet they (the group) are taking care of me. Coming here is a lot better than sitting alone in my house with a toddler.”
Most of the cooking is done by the ladies, but the men also pitch in. Taco night found two guys manning the grill while another chopped the meat used for the tacos. The women took turns cooking rice, heating tortillas and preparing sauces. Once all of the food was ready, it was time enjoy the fruits of their labor. First in line was Dillenback.
“They always let me go first because I’m pregnant,” she said. “They tell me I need to keep up my nutrition.”
There is no large table that everyone sits around for the meal. Each person, couple, group of friends, find their own place to eat and visit. And their children treat each adult as if they were their mother or father. It looks like a typical large family holiday meal with aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters, moms and dads all feeding each others’ kids, with plenty of laughter filling the air.
Pvt. Paul Copeland, 4th BCT, 10th Mtn Div, hails from Tuscaloosa, Ala. He and his wife, Sarah, have a son, Kaden, 7 months. Dessert time found him feeding someone else’s child off of his wife’s plate with his fingers. “Nothing odd about this,” he said, as both he and the recipient of a finger-full of chocolate pie, 1-year-old Kinsley Boon, broke out in laughter. “This is pretty much how it goes every meal.”
Whether it’s at the coffee table in the living area, seated around the small kitchen table, or as in the case with Kinsley and her dad, Andrew, parked in a corner on the kitchen floor, everybody finds “their space” and no one leaves hungry.
Kinsley’s mom, Spc. Katie Boon, 1st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, said she enjoys the camaraderie the group shares.
“This is fantastic,” she said. “Coming here every day after work reduces stress, and saves time and money. I just add my part to the meal and it’s all good. We finally have friends. This has been great for our marriage. It’s like a big family.”
Sara Helms agreed.
“We’re all here for each other,” she said. “None of us have Family here, so this is our comfort, our security, our Family.”
Flor Martinez, who along with her husband Pvt. Josue and daughter Sue, 14 months, is a California native and said the group has helped her adjust to life in Louisiana.
“My dog used to get out and come over here,” she said. “One day when I came by to pick up my dog, they invited us to eat.
“I felt at home immediately.” Flor said she had been at Fort Polk for more than a year and had made no friends.
“Now I have a lot of friends and I’m more comfortable,” she said. “I have someone to talk to and Family to visit.”
Sarah Copeland’s story is similar.
“I didn’t have many friends,” Sarah said. “Cassie knocked on our door and invited us over. It started out every weekend, then every day. If some one is short of cash, gas, diapers, whatever, we all pitch in and help out.”
Copeland said it’s almost like a commune — except you go home at night, most times.
“We all trust each other,” she said. “When Cassie had surgery, we took turns baby sitting. And sometimes, after we eat, some of us will stay around visiting and just sleep over.”
Andrew Boon said the nightly gathering beats what he would normally do at home.
“I’d just be sitting in front of the TV playing video games,” he said. “We have much more social interaction and I can see how it has helped Katie. And it’s saved us a lot of money.”
Spc. Ashton and Alex Mackey, 4th BCT, 10th Mtn Div, are also members of the group. The couple came to Fort Polk from Oregon and Alex said their new Family has helped with the transition.
“They provide us with a warm, healthy, safe environment,” she said. “It’s nice to get out of our house and be with people.”
Alex said when they first arrived at Fort Polk, she heard it was hard to make friends, and at first, it was.
“But Katie is in my husband’s unit and she invited us over,” Alex said. “We’ve stayed and I definitely have friends now.”
Once every two weeks the ladies put their heads together and plan a menu for the next two weeks. Sometimes the meals stay the same — taco night and spaghetti night seem to be favorites — but often one of the team members will have a new recipe they would like to try. And judging from the response of the men, they have willing guinea pigs just waiting for the chance to try a new dish.
“The food is always great,” Ashton Mackey said. “I’ve never had a bad meal.”
When then menu is complete, a list of ingredients is prepared and divided evenly among each of the Families.
“We try to make sure everyone spends about the same,” Sara Helms said. “So far, it’s worked out much better than we could have imagined.”
The Helms, whose home plays host to the nightly meals, say it’s been no trouble having a large meal at their home each evening.
“Everyone offers to help clean up and I enjoy it,” Sara said. “It makes me feel safe because we all keep an eye on each other and take care of each other. That’s what a Family does.”
Jon Helms agreed.
“It brings a little light to the day,” he said. “We’re all friends; there’s nothing bad about it at all. Everyone pitches in and does their part. We love having our friends over.”
Sara Helms said it reminds her of her childhood.
“My grandmother’s house was like this,” she said. “Every weekend, everyone went over there. Now, I can do it at my house.
“When everyone is here, I’m content. It feels like Christmas all year long.”