Within a society fixated on sex, drugs and alcohol, it may be hard for children to know where to turn if they want to have some good, clean fun. Bob’s Diner on Fort Hood offers military kids a safe environment where they can grow – both personally and in their faith.
“I like coming here to be with friends, that’s what’s fun,” said Matt Fischer, 16. Fischer also pointed out that the diner is one of the few places he can find a “clean” environment without being concerend about encountering negative or offensive language, actions or topics of discussion.
Bob’s offers a youth ministry like no other. Instead of constant reading, discussing and songs, diner founders Steve and Martie Carter do things a little differently. Through art, music, drama and games, the Carters hope to help children learn more about themselves and their roles in a Christian environment.
“We want to develop the kids as individuals and allow them to grow up and find out that the gifts and abilities God has given them they can use in many areas of life,” Steve said. “They can serve the church, the community and Christ with the gifts he’s given them.”
These gifts might be great comedic timing that makes people laugh, a powerful voice or the ability to make people feel various emotions while looking at a painting. But, no matter what God has graced these children with, the Carters have made it their mission to embrace and encourage Army children worldwide.
Steve is a retired chaplains’ sergeant major and has been involved with youth ministries at each post he’s been stationed at since 1975 along with his wife, Martie. They started up the original Bob’s Diner during his assignment at Fort Hood in the late 90s. The hope was to create an environment where military kids could feel like they belong, surrounded by others who are dealing with the same difficulties of military life such as deployments and relocations.
The Bob’s Diner theme is somewhere kids can feel comfortable and at ease, like an old, small town diner. While his given name is Steve, Carter goes by Bob with the kids. Many military kids are raised with a great deal of courtesy and respect for their elders. Steve had a hard time convincing the kids and their parents that it was OK to call him by his first name, even though he was a sergeant major and an active participant in the church. By adopting the moniker “Bob,” Steve aimed to put the kids more at ease and do away with some of the limiting formalities.
Spending his life in the military and working with military children has made Steve acutely aware of the troubles they deal with day to day. He, his wife and their youth group leaders do everything they can to make continuous military transitions easier for the middle school and high school kids in their ministry. From connecting families with a ministry at their new installation to giving gifts of Bibles and framed pictures upon departure, the Carters and the entire Bob’s Diner family try to make every child feel like they’re forever a part of something.
Children from all Christian denominations and even those with no religious background are welcome at the ministry. The diner has participants with various disabilities, including autism. The Carters go out of their way to ensure everyone, regardless of their physical capabilities, feels like they belong.
Tuesdays feature art, music and drama classes. Steve heads up the art classes because it’s something he’s passionate about and he has a background in fine arts. Children learn about painting, sculpting and other artistic mediums. They’re currently working on a side project which is a large bronze sculpture to be featured in the courtyard of the U.S. Army Chaplain’s Museum at Fort Jackson, S.C. The children have been involved in every step from conceiving the idea to creating the clay model to visiting the foundry, where they viewed the bronzing process.
The drama group creates fun skits based off a message provided by Steve. The kids write the script and perform for their peers during Wednesday night meetings.
The Bob’s Diner band practices faith-based musical pieces Tuesdays for performances on Wednesdays. Any musical instrument is welcome and Martie keeps the band focused and on task.
Wednesdays are a more traditional youth group setting with music and discussion but, in Bob’s Diner fashion, there’s still a twist. Toward the end of Wednesday meetings, there are sports … with Beanie Babies. Beanie soccer, basketball and baseball were conceived out of necessity, Steve said. They wanted some sort of physical activity that everyone could enjoy and from which no one would feel excluded. Because of their disabled participants, sports that were based off fun, not skill, were the best bet.
“We wanted kids to know they won’t be ridiculed, they will be protected,” Steve said. “It’s OK for them to participate to whatever level they can.”
Even more significant than the efforts of the diner’s leadership to make the kids feel included and cared for are the less obvious effects of being around other military kids in an open and understanding environment.
“They’re all Army kids,” Steve said. “Whatever they have going on, someone’s been through it and can relate and help them through the best the best they can.”
“It’s a relief to be here,” said Melissa Bruson, 16. “There’s a lot of people moving and not know what’s next and we can come together on one common thing.”
Next to growth in one’s faith, support and understanding are the most important features of Bob’s Diner. “Outside the wire (gates), folks don’t know what these kids go through,” Steve said. “These kids are under far more stress than kids pre-war and, for the most part, they don’t act out; we don’t see behavioral issues. They just die on the inside.”
Dealing with deployments of one or both parents and the constant fear that something could happen to their Soldier ages many of these children before their time. Steve told of one art class where they were working on sculptures and one child made a woman, hunched over, and holding a triangle. All of the other children instantly knew that this sculpture was a woman after being presented a folded U.S. flag following the death of her Soldier.
This awareness of loss is part of what sets military kids apart from their civilian peers, Steve said. “This is what’s built in to their world view. It’s part of what these kids are. They all realize life is a fleeting thing; it’s not something that’s guaranteed. Outside (the gate), they don’t think about that.”
His hope is that Bob’s Diner can provide continuity for children dealing with so many changes. “We’re here when their parent leaves, we’re here when they come home,” Steve said. “We want to give them a place where they can just come and be kids.”
While there are many Morale, Welfare and Recreation programs that cater to kids, Steve said such programs primarily provide a distraction for the children, but Bob’s Diner provides hope. “It’s hard when people they love are far away, in danger and they can’t be distracted, but they can find hope by knowing there is a God who is bigger than circumstance.”
The Carters had the opportunity to help military children through another difficult situation following the Nov. 5 shootings at Fort Hood. They had taken the kids out to lunch because a member of the ministry was moving and once the post was locked down the kids were separated from their parents until late in the evening.
The Carters brought all the kids to their house and helped them sort through a number of feelings including anger, worry and betrayal. Steve said the kids felt violated because post is supposed to be a safe place and betrayed because a commissioned officer was suspected of committing the crime. Their time around the military had taught them that commissioned officers were leaders and someone they could trust. Steve said without this program and the bond between the kids and themselves, they couldn’t have effectively counseled them through this event.
Despite losing friends and gaining friends every few years, the kids at Bob’s Diner are very open to bonding and making lasting friendships. “When you get military kids together, they really embrace the opportunity,” Martie said. “They all know they don’t have a lot of time together.”
“We don’t know where we’re going to be in six months and we have to make friends fast and Bob’s is a safe place to do that,” said Stephen Batchelor, 15.
Fort Hood Soldiers are also taking part in leading these kids in growth and faith. First Lt. Kathryn Hermon, with the 62nd Engineer Battalion, spoke to her battalion chaplain while deployed on how she could grow more in her faith. His advice was to help others discover it and that led Hermon to Bob’s Diner. “I enjoy spreading the word of God and being a positive role model,” explained Hermon, who is the drama and high school female group leader. “I feel a calling to come and do this every week.”
Despite the three nights per week commitment for the group leaders, Pfc. Taylor Seitz, with 1st Cavalry Division, couldn’t wait to get involved. Coming from a church oriented family made Seitz want to have a leadership position in the type of youth ministries he grew up in. “Not only am I a Soldier, but a Christian first and foremost,” Seitz said. “Anything I can do to witness, I’m here for. I love to see the kids and the excitement they have for God.”
Other group leaders are former Bob’s Diner kids from the Carters’ ministry in the early 90s. Kids like Abby Mayfield, 20, came back to help lead the new generation of Diner kids. “It really impacted my life,” the college student explained, “and I feel like I can give back.” Mayfield works with the band and plays piano and sings.
Bob’s Diner meets Tuesday and Wednesday nights from 6:30 p.m. until 8 p.m. at the 19th Street Chapel. The Post Chaplains Office had the chapel renovated to specifically suit the needs of Bob’s Diner, including a large open area in place of pews to provide a place for sports.