Airman Finds Joy in Volunteering

by Airman 1st Class Javier Alvarez
JBER Public Affairs

Candles, held by teens and adults alike, glowed at the Covenant House Alaska's vigil in downtown Anchorage.

Air Force Maj. Craig McDowell surveyed the crowd and noticed a teenage girl nearby. It was a chilly February night, but her clothing was layered in defense against more than the cold. Mascara couldn't quite hide the bruising around her eyes, and she seemed to cower like a maltreated dog.

McDowell, chief of combat operations with the 611th Air Operations Squadron, recalls feeling a slew of emotions.

"That is not supposed to happen to American citizens," McDowell said.

"I got angry," he continued. "I said, no, I am not going to let this happen. I went and I found one of the staff, and I said I was going to keep dropping by here."

Soon after that encounter, McDowell found himself at the center near-daily. Each day was an opportunity to make a difference.

"It was about six months later we finally found the kid," McDowell said. "We got her checked in here. And we managed to finally to get her to go to court, which was a feat in itself."

The teen is now in assisted living. He said he tries to visit sparingly, so she will not depend on him.

McDowell said his church was the inspiration to volunteer at CHA, however, he credits the troubled teen as the cementing factor.

McDowell, who has no children of his own, said he finds joy in seeing the impact his volunteerism has had at CHA.

The smile on his face accentuates the warmth of his personality and has an air of comfort. His low, authoritative voice rings with security - reassuring the listener everything is going to be okay.

"I think it is making a difference," McDowell said. "I won't be so arrogant as to say I know for sure, but it seems like it. They seem to listen and I seem to get them to confide in me when they won't confide in anybody else."

McDowell's time at the center is purposeful and driven, and the friendly encounters with the centers patrons signals the impact he's had.

"He has been a positive male role model, which many of our youth have never had," said Jennifer Piffarerio, a psychologist at Covenant House Alaska. "He has been able to connect with them, and show them what a man should be like. He cares for them, he listens to them. He have helped them when they've been on the street. There are a number of things he has done that has touched their lives."

There is sincerity in his words and his actions, evident to those who come in contact with him.

While his volunteerism is thoroughly inspired, the events which brought McDowell to CHA are all but joyful.

"That was a success story, but there are many others," McDowell said.

The simple act of listening can have a huge impact. Building a puzzle, playing basketball, or any of the various activities supported at the center are ways to connect with the youth.

"You can't replace their parents, but what you can do - and what I try to do - is be a responsible role model for these kids," McDowell said. "A lot of their fathers are not in their lives, and if they are, they're abusive. Or there's conflict there. It's never a blanket scenario. I try to be there. I don't try to take the role of their brothers or sisters; I don't try to be the parent. But I do try to be somebody that cares about them and is proud of them for their successes."

McDowell is known throughout the center as Captain America, because of his superhero-like persona.

"I think for them to see a military member come in, who can be approachable and who can be with them without judging, is important," Piffarerio said. "When he comes in, the kids light up. Many will run to him to share a good day or share a good thing. They want him to be proud of them."

While some might be intimidated by the notion of working with homeless teens, McDowell says it is not hard. He gets the same enjoyment volunteering at CHA that he does putting on the uniform.

"It's a privilege that they let me to come into this place and spend as much time as I do. It's a privilege I get to wear the uniform. That's the best way to put it," he said.

There are many things he could be doing after a long and tiring day at work, Piffarerio said.

"He chooses to serve, not only for the military and the country, but he serves kids and I think that's important," she said.