Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Jonathan Schafler’s tour of duty as the Community Affairs Officer for the District ends on September 30th, to the disappointment of the community whose admiration he has earned.
LCDR Schafler seemed to be everywhere in Ward 8 over the past four years. He made hundreds of personal friends and enhanced the reputation of the Coast Guard as it moved across the Anacostia River and became a new neighbor in Ward 8.
During his tenure, the Coast Guard and its employees have contributed over 55,000 volunteer hours to projects in the District, mostly in Ward 8.
- Over 200,000 pounds of food delivered to pantries in Ward 8 as a part of the larger Feds Feeds Families outreach program.
- A successful Partnerships in Education program at six area schools, mentoring thousands of youth.
- A positive presence at back-to-school events, holiday parties, families in need, kids at baseball games, assistance to veterans, and supporting virtually every recent parade East of the River.
LCDR Schafler will be honored with an award from the Ward 8 community during the Anacostia Coordinating Council’s 25th Anniversary boat ride on September 30th, his last day on the job.
It is not clear when or if the Coast Guard will fill LCDR Schafler’s Community Affairs position. But many people believe that it will be impossible to fill his shoes.
A recent first-person story of how he fell into the role of the Coast Guard's Community Affairs Officer is long, but worth a read:
One Handshake at a Time
An Innovative Approach to Community Outreach
LCDR Jonathan Schafler
When I retired from my civilian job in 2013, I knew I wanted to stay active and engaged. As a drilling reservist in my 28th year of service to these United States, I figured that the most exciting times of my career were behind me. I had several overseas deployments including a year in Iraq with Patrol Forces Southwest Asia (PATFORSWA) as the Liaison to the Iraqi Coastal Border Guard, spent time in Spain with Port Security Unit 305, been a plank owner of Marine Safety and Security Team 91102, and had more than my share of hurricanes, floods, and disasters. It was a good career. At age 54, I wasn’t looking to set the world on fire, I was just looking for an opportunity to come on active duty for a year or so in a position where I could continue to serve, use my skills, and tack on some points towards that reserve retirement calculation we all think about. After 25 years with the U.S. Department of the Interior, as a National Park Service Ranger, Federal Game Warden, and Wildlife Refuge Manager at nine different locations from Alaska to Puerto Rico, I was ready to tone it down a notch or two. It was time to find a staff job commensurate with most O-4 billets and blend in… or so I thought.
From my home in West Virginia I threw the net; surely somebody could use a salty dog with my background. I surfed message traffic, spoke to a few folks, and kept a watch on MRTT for the right chance. Then there it was: a headquarters position working for the Office of Defense Operations (CG-ODO) on Title 10 orders, one year in support of PATFORSWA strategy. Perfect. I applied, got the position, dusted off that tropical blue uniform I wore twice a year, and headed to Washington D.C. Active duty, here I come.
Headquarters was just transitioning from the old headquarters building at Buzzards Point to the new complex on the grounds of the historic St. Elizabeths Hospital campus for the mentally insane (I’m not sure just how the Coast Guard fits in…) located in the historically disadvantaged Ward 8 neighborhood of D.C.
After work I decided to start walking home out of Gate 1 down Martin Luther King Ave. SE, straight through the heart of Anacostia to my one room “mancave” on K St. on Capitol Hill. Being brought up in San Francisco’s inner city, I wondered what could be so different here? Little did I know that what I experienced on these walks would change my career, and my life, for good.
Here in Ward 8 was a real community, a place where people hung out, still talked to each other, still knew each other’s name. You could feel the beat of the place. Folks looked you in the eye when they spoke and didn’t mince words; you knew where they were coming from. Each day I would learn a bit more, find a great restaurant, make a new friend, and in the process, I discovered a community identity that many places in America had lost. It was a place with character, and I fit right in.
I learned that when the Coast Guard decided on a new headquarters building in SE Washington D.C. that there was a great deal of discussion about what our move would mean to the new community. The hope and discussion was that we would help bring prosperity, jobs, and become an active part of the community. In reality, the campus was surrounded by a six-foot-high historic 150-year-old brick wall and, it seemed that Coast Guard members and civilians only stepped in Anacostia when moving from their car or the shuttle bus to their office and back. There weren’t many shops nearby; jobs on campus would be a long-term objective, and there was a widespread perception that venturing outside the walls in this part of town was not very safe.
So then how would we become members of the community? What was the mechanism that would bring us together where a wall and closed minds were keeping us apart? I realized that the most tangible thing we had to offer the Ward 8 community was the time, talent and treasure of the Coast Guard’s best resource: its people. Volunteering in the community would be the key to building our relationship. But where to begin?
As I asked around, I found that there was one man promoting community relations, and he happened to be a native of D.C. I decided to reach out to him. But there was a problem: the man was Vice Admiral Manson Brown, a few pay grades out of my league and not exactly approachable, or so I thought. I caught wind of a community meeting he was attending, speaking to the Anacostia Coordinating Council (ACC), and I decided to jump the chain of command, which is usually not recommended, and approach his aide to worm my way into the meeting. I could tell the Admiral’s aide was surprised I asked but told me to meet him in the Headquarters lobby at 1130.
Vice Admiral Manson Brown had a talent of making people feel comfortable in any situation, and I immediately respected the way he could work a room and transition from conversation to conversation regardless of topic or status. As a native Washingtonian, he knew the beat of the city. The ACC was a great forum for local agencies, organizations and non-profits to work together for a common good: bettering the lives of others in Southeast DC. Here were pastors, business leaders, local politicians, community organizers, and regular folks interested in helping others. The Admiral was gracious and introduced me to several engaging people. As the three of us left the meeting, he turned to me and asked how I liked this type of thing. “Loved it,” I replied. “Good,” he said. “You’re the liaison to this group from here on out.” The game was on.
I spent the next month or so juggling my ODO work with a growing slate of community meetings and figuring out how to best share my newfound community with my fellow employees. I was volunteering at veteran’s shelters, soup kitchens, and with our Partners in Education Program at a local boy’s school while starting to encourage others to join me. Two days per week turned into three days and two nights per week, and each meeting I attended turned up another opportunity to become involved. There was such a need, and it was clear that the Coast Guard could make a real difference, the question was how.
A couple months later, I was so engaged in the community that ODO “loaned” me to Vice Admiral Brown and the Deputy Commandant for Mission Support (DCMS) to continue outreach and in-reach to our employees. Admiral Brown would retire in May and I knew that without his top cover my ability to continue my “outside the box” status would be limited. I asked the Admiral how I could turn this passion for community into a full time gig. Could I do another year of Active Duty as the Community Affairs Officer? He said that it would be great if such a position existed but it does not. I decided to write a position description and described the need while we transition to our new location, and that assigning someone to represent us to the District would allow us to become neighbors and a contributing member of the community. Two weeks before he retired I received another year on ADOS orders as the first Community Affairs Officer for Coast Guard Headquarters.
Fast forward three years and 55,000 volunteer hours later, and I am still serving as the Liaison to the District of Columbia. The job has evolved into an actively engaged position with close working relationships with the Mayor’s Office, D.C. Congresswoman’s Elenore Holmes Norton Office, the DC City Council, and contacts at virtually every level of the D.C. government. Working closely with community leaders, non-profit organizations, faith-based leaders and business owners, the Coast Guard, through its growing cadre of volunteers and mentors, is now regularly engaged in over 1,000 hours per month of meaningful community service to veterans, homeless shelters, charitable organizations, schools, soup kitchens, and civic groups. Junior Officers and senior enlisted personnel regularly volunteer to step-up to lead and assist with these efforts. Our mentors make a real difference through reading programs, STEM tutoring, and leading by example in the communities we serve. We have developed strong partnerships with the Metropolitan Police Department engaging at-risk youth, helping families, and building relationships with officers across the force. Employees throughout our organization (Active duty, Reserve, Civilian, AUX, and retirees) are all engaged and contributing to a burgeoning, fruitful relationship with our Nation’s capital. Coaching soccer, participating in community parades, reading to kids, and adopting families for the holidays are just a few of our activities.
Internally, the position advocates for volunteering, coordinates tours of the historic campus, assists with MWR activities, and provides Coast Guard leadership with updates and contacts with D.C. leaders to keep them informed on area development, emergent issues in the community, and trends that may affect our employees or infrastructure. Community leaders are regularly invited to command functions and kept abreast of policies and changes to our local footprint.
Our ties in the community have also resulted in an increased awareness by the other military services to become involved though committed community service. A joint services working group has formed that plans and executes large scale clean-up projects and restoration efforts like restoring a historic veterans cemetery that has been neglected for years and the adoption of the Armed Forces Retirement home in Washington. The more we do, the more our relationships continue to grow. Partnerships with DHS and its other components, the U.S. Public Health Service and the DC National Guard provide a force multiplier that allow us to have a significant impact in the lives of those in need. The business community continues to be a great partner teaming up on projects to bring resources to bear. Veteran’s service organizations, foreign embassies, college fraternities, and local unions all continue to show support for our efforts here in the District of Columbia. By reputation, we are regularly asked to participate in community events, civic discussions, and opportunities to create social good will.
I am a firm believer that when bad things happen to public organizations it is because they fail to build relationships in the communities they serve. The time to have such a relationship is not when a crisis develops or a story appears on the front page of the local paper. Building trust starts with grassroots, bottom-up community development without regard for gain or intent. People know when your motives are sincere and will support an organization they know and trust. They appreciate the work you do. The Coast Guard is now a known commodity in the District of Columbia. They know us, our missions and goals, what we can do, and our limitations, as well. Our transparency leads to good will and combined effort for the greater good.
So is this just an anomaly here in the Nation’s Capital or could this be a model for other commands to follow? Could this pattern of community presence thrive in San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, New Orleans, in other urban hubs, or anywhere the Coast Guard has a presence? If the results achieved in D.C. are any indication, it’s a model that could improve relationships throughout the country.
What is the Coast Guard’s vested interest in this type of community work? Clearly local outreach does not fit into any of our statutory missions, nor was the organization structured to work locally within communities, especially at Headquarters, where programs and strategy rightfully lead. This was new ground, and as I discovered, I seemed to be the only person in the Coast Guard interfacing with the District of Columbia, our Nation’s capital. Sure we had Congressional Affairs, staffers at the White House, Liaisons with other Federal Agencies in the District, but no one spoke directly to the District government or its departments. What if someone got hurt in the city, what if a water main broke; a sidewalk crossing was needed? Who makes the connection? These types of connections could affect operations anywhere we have a presence. It’s a model to insure our organization is vested in the places we live and work. It is a concept whose time has come.
The model isn’t simply community affairs, it’s not just public affairs; it is a relationship with the communities we serve. Although many commands have relationships in the community, it is leadership led, not organizationally-driven. Great leaders know the value of community relationships but a change in leadership often means a change in the relationship. Each command could develop a Liaison’s Guide that lays out the relationships in your community: what’s the political structure? Who is the Mayor? What is the communities greatest need? What civic and social groups are involved in the local community? What are the critical contacts in the community (police, fire, EMS, public works etc.)? How do we plug in and what is the expectation? How can we help each other be successful? The Community Liaison meets that objective.
When I look at the great results of our outreach efforts in the D.C. community, I cannot help but think about the rest of our Service and what a similar model might do. Volunteering in our communities isn’t just good for the community and it isn’t just a feel good exercise for our employees either. It is a sound homeland security strategy that builds relationships and trust amongst the community. It strengthens our employees’ connection to the place they call home, it builds morale, and improves retention.
So what are we waiting for? We are an organization that prides itself on our adaptability, and our strengths lie in our people. I know it works here in the District of Columbia.…one handshake at a time.