Timothy Montjoy retired from the United States Air Force after serving from 1996 until 2016, with deployments to South Korea, Turkey, and Afghanistan. During those deployments, he had to leave behind his only child, a daughter, Bethany, now age 19. Timothy experienced firsthand the toll that a parent being called away can take on a child. Bethany has always been an athlete, even cheerleading recently for Presbyterian College, and Timothy would have been relieved to know that she was being encouraged and mentored in this activity while he was separated from her.
“There was never really any avenue or outlet outside of the home for her to be mentored athletically, academically, and socially,” he says.
When Timothy returned from his last deployment in 2012, he began to formulate a plan. With the motto “Community is a Team Effort,” Timothy established Operation Teammate almost three years ago as a national nonprofit.
Timothy says Bethany was very instrumental in the establishment of the organization and helps when she can, even though she is currently enrolled in college. “She plays an important role and is very much paramount in relating to the kids and interacting with them at the events.”
The timing of Operation Teammate’s launch coincided not only with Timothy’s retirement from active duty, but also with his daughter’s high school graduation. Part of the impetus for the foundation of the organization was that he desired to stay connected in some way to the military and to Bethany.
“I thought that activities through sports could serve as a bridge,” he says, “because most kids are involved in some sort of sporting activity. So, with Operation Teammate, there is attention on a particular team, a sports figure, or a sport. I wanted kids to see what college and professional athletes have done to get to where they are and for the feedback and conversation from the athletes to show kids what it takes to overcome challenges and work through any obstacles.”
Timothy, who has made Operation Teammate his full-time endeavor, says, “Sports are positive environments for all kids. If all they do is have fun and get some appreciation, we have succeeded; but, from a broader perspective, if the athletes encourage or inspire, then that’s even better. Some kids go to multiple events and get something different out of each one.”
According to Timothy, who currently resides in Augusta, Georgia, there are more than 3 million military and first responder families in the United States. About 85 percent have school age children. And about 20 percent (1 in 5) of parents are away from home at any given time. To fill the time gap, Operation Teammate partners with athletic organizations, primarily collegiate and professional teams, to create memorable sporting experiences for the children of those military and first responder parents. That experience may be: free game attendance, meet and greet time with athletes, pre- and post-game interactions, half-time activities, pre-game ceremonies, photo and autograph opportunities, pen pal connections, or a tour of the athletic facility.
For example, Operation Teammate partnered with the University of South Carolina Women’s Volleyball. In September 2016, 23 children and some of their parents attended a match. Afterward, the children were able to have photos made with players, ask questions, and get autographs. Also in 2017, the organization teamed with Columbia Fireflies minor league baseball at Spirit Communications Park to offer Community Organization of the Game, which is a package that allows for Operation Teammate to set up a booth and spread the message, provides tickets to games, and enables one of the Operation Teammate children to throw out the first pitch of the game.
One of the organization’s very first events was held at Columbia College, where children had a chance to watch a Koalas Ladies Basketball game as well as have an opportunity to get on the court during halftime and shoot with the athletes. The group has also hosted similar events in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Augusta and Atlanta, Georgia.
“These events are very interactive with the team members. It’s getting to the point where teams are contacting us because there is a benefit as well for athletes to give back,” says Timothy. “We want to create a memorable sporting experience that goes beyond sitting in the stands. We tour facilities, and the kids listen to athletes speak about what it took to get where they are and talk about the ups and downs. Being able to hear those stories hits home and resonates with them. That feedback encourages the kids to see a positive perspective and motivates them to persevere during tough times as they pursue their dreams.”
Since 2015, more than 300 children have attended one of Operation Teammate’s 16 or so organized sporting experiences. Some opportunities are for a large number of children, while others are more intimate.
Criteria for selecting children, ages 5 to 18, is simple. Operation Teammate works with various family support centers and deployment groups to spread the word about upcoming sports experiences, which are open to any family going through or preparing for a military or first responder separation. Families interested in attending or becoming involved in Operation Teammate may follow up via the website, by telephone, by email, or through other social platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. Operation Teammate covers 100 percent of the cost of the activities so that families have no financial burden.
Most children attending events do so while one or more parents are away. Sometimes children need to re-establish bonding when a parent comes back, Timothy says, so Operation Teammate provides an avenue for that as well.
“The main goal is always to offer a positive environment for these kids,” he says, explaining that Operation Teammate is not about pushing athletics on kids or focusing only on those who are interested in sports. “Athletics is simply the way of getting their attention.”
Although the organization works to fill a gap left by the separation from a parent and to inspire children by exposing them to a unique activity, the sporting experiences are a win-win for all involved.
Dan Corman, with the United States Air Force, saw firsthand the positive impact Operation Teammate had on his family. He shared with Timothy, “My position within the USAF during my time at Shaw Air Force Base afforded me several opportunities to go on temporary duty assignments short and long to many different countries. My family’s feelings regarding these absences ranged from understanding and pride to downright upset. It was always hard to leave my family behind while performing my duties overseas. But, I had my job to keep me distracted long enough to get me home. It was my family, at home without me, that truly had it hard. Operation Teammate experiences provided an opportunity for my girls to make new friends with other military kids.”
He says the USC Women’s Volleyball game was particularly meaningful. “My girls left the gym that day knowing that they could accomplish anything they put their minds to as long as they worked hard and never gave up.”
Not only do children and parents benefit, but also the athletes do as well. Junior Courtney Furlong is an outside hitter for the USC Women’s Volleyball team. “We met with the kids, signed posters, and answered questions they had for us,” she says of the Operation Teammate event. “All of them were so friendly and wanted to talk to us. The activity was a way not only for the kids to be around others whose parents are first responders, but it also gives them an opportunity to see all aspects of a multitude of sports and hopefully spark interest in being active and exercising.”
Another believer in Operation Teammate’s impact is Taylor Lamb, who met Timothy at the beginning of 2017. Taylor is director of athletic media relations at Augusta University. He decided to work with Operation Teammate for the annual Military Appreciation Day basketball games, which 1,000 Fort Gordon soldiers attend. “Instantly, I knew this was an amazing cause. We have now had Operation Teammate come to numerous games, with plans for them to attend more. It’s a great way for our AU Athletics’ student-athletes, coaches, fans, and staff to interact with these kids during their times of separation and give them some fun and uplifting atmospheres.”
Timothy feels he benefits personally from serving. “I like to see smiles on kids’ faces. It’s joyous, especially when you know their circumstances. I’ve been doing community service since sixth or seventh grade. It just feels natural.”
Future goals for Operation Teammate may seem lofty to some, but Timothy is determined to achieve them. “After the huge success with our 2017 events, we are currently finalizing details for sporting experiences with such organizations as the PGA, NASCAR, and the NBA,” he says.
Events are regularly added to the Operation Teammate calendar, which is available on its website. “Since April is the Month of the Military Child, we have a lot of special activities planned and many opportunities to impact kids,” says Timothy.