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The Connection: Leadership Lab for Next Year's Leaders

Airmen serve themselves during “Throwdown Thursday” at the Connection on Oct. 10 in Tuskegee Hall, Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. Throwdown Thursday began in September with more than 45 single enlisted military members in attendance. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Peter R.O. Danielson/Released)

Airmen serve themselves during “Throwdown Thursday” at the Connection on Oct. 10 in Tuskegee Hall, Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. Throwdown Thursday began in September with more than 45 single enlisted military members in attendance. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Peter R.O. Danielson/Released)

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- When an Airman moves into the Offutt dormitories fresh from technical school, they are naturally curious about a lot of things. They don't yet know where the dining facility is, or where they'll report in to work. Their sponsor takes care of these quick issues, but then leaves the Airman to explore their new home.

If they're lucky, they'll travel to the third floor of Tuskegee Dormitory. They might catch an impressive view of the fifty state flags of the Kenney Gate, the retired RC-135 and B-52 on display, and Bellevue's sweeping sea of trees. They also might find an incredibly active community of Airmen and Sailors gathering in the two former day-rooms preparing for an evening of fellowship and volunteerism at the Connection, Offutt's Airmen Ministry Center.

"A lot of our attendance comes from word of mouth," said Airman 1st Class Trevon Brooks, one of the peer-to-peer leadership volunteers at the Connection and an electronic warfare apprentice with the 55th Intelligence Support Squadron. "We go out there and push them to join the family. We'll drag them if we have to."

The Connection, open Monday through Saturday 6 p.m. through 10 p.m. and Sunday 1 p.m. through 6 p.m. but frequently has extended hours, offers pool tables, foosball, computers, video game consoles, big-screen televisions and a kitchen that is stocked with free drinks and snacks. Dorm residents are welcome regardless of the hall they live in.

"All Airmen come to the base worried about something - making rank, or finding a familiar face," Brooks said. "We try our best to make this available at the Connection through personal mentorship and friendship."

The Connection is run with one thing at the forefront: peer-to peer involvement and patron-led leadership. Brooks said that while they do occasionally rely on chaplains to assist, most problems that are brought to them are solved by talking to each other and using the connections they've made in the Airman Ministry Center.

"It doesn't take age, rank or gender to make a leader," said Brooks. "We have a lot of mentorship from and for each other, as well as great leadership from Mr. Ivory."

"We try to maintain relationships," said Ivory Baker, director of the Airman Ministry Center. "The Connection is a leadership lab. From here, we're developing next year's leaders."

Baker emphasized his viewpoint further by explaining where he got his leadership cues.

"[Gen. Mark Welsh III, chief of staff of the Air Force] feels that every Airman has a story, and we feel the same way," said Baker. "It is incumbent on us to learn that story and shape it before they get into trouble."

When Brooks first came to Offutt, he met with Baker during his volunteer orientation. Baker said that brooks was very excited and at one point described his plan for being in the Air Force.

"At that time, I thought he was 80 percent ambition and 20 percent people," said Baker. "These days, I see him as about 10 percent interested in his ambition and the rest is all about others."

Groups of Connection volunteers frequently go to the Eastern Nebraska Veterans Home to play bingo and socialize with the veterans there. Other volunteers go out to the Stephen Center, a local homeless shelter, to prepare and serve meals. This active involvement has brought many of Offutt's current leaders to admire their prolific efforts.

"One of the things that stood out for us is how well our Airmen step into these leadership roles," said Chief Master Sgt. William Thomaston, 55th Wing command chief. "It's great when you see these young Airmen get out and really show us what they can do."

Thomaston said that he would continue to protect this program as it endured.

"The key to success is that we don't allow any one organization too much of a handhold on this program," said Thomaston. "This program thrives off the volunteerism and enthusiasm of our younger Airmen."

Baker said Brooks' hard work and dedication has been noticed by the leadership around the base and has earned him a below-the-zone promotion to senior airman. This makes more than 15 Connection volunteers that have earned this prestigious recognition.

"We try to get folks who have potential and can bring it out in others," said Baker. "That's what we do here. We build leaders."