T.F. Green Airport is set to better serve members of the United States Armed Forces, veterans and their families, as the Rhode Island Military Organization (RIMO) Military Lounge will soon open.
According to RIMO Vice Chair and Airport Committee Project Chair Lori Ashness, the 500-square-foot area will exclusively cater to more than 10,000 military members annually. She estimates it will be ready by the end of the summer so they can connect with loved ones and relax before or after a flight, as opposed to waiting in a busy, often noisy terminal.
“As you’re traveling through the airports, you may just want to get some work done or have some quiet time to read a book,” said Chief Master Sgt. Ashness, who has been a member of the Rhode Island Air National Guard for more than 35 years. “It’s nice to have your own space. To me, it says something about the community. You sort of feel special having a place to go to with things you need.”
The lounge is on the ticketing floor, which is located on the second level. It is made possible due to help from the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC), along with the generosity of several local businesses that contributed supplies and services toward the cause at no cost.
“They were extremely generous and gracious with providing things that we need,” said Ashness.
While RIAC donated the space to RIMO, Gilbane Building Company, in collaboration with Local 271, accomplished the necessary construction. They performed all the electrical work, added air conditioning vents and heating registers, painted, as well as installed a new rug, cabinets, countertops and baseboards.
Additionally, Rhode Island Realtors donated a big screen television and refrigerator, while representatives from Cardi’s Furniture recently visited the space, with plans to donate cozy couches, chairs and other furnishings to match the room.
“We want to make it comfortable,” she said.
As for snacks, Pepsi donated unlimited amounts of soda and bottled water, while the Girl Scouts contributed a continuous supply of cookies. The items will be stocked in a small kitchenette within the lounge.
“We just need to call them a week in advance when we are in need and they’ll put aside cases of supplies for us,” said Ashness.
The generosity doesn’t end there, as the Coventry West Greenwich Elks Lodge 2285 donated $1,000, and the Rhode Island State Senate awarded RIMO a $1,000 grant, a charge that was led by Senator Leader Juan Pichardo.
“They’ve been absolutely incredible,” she said of the supporters, noting that RIMO is working on acquiring three computers with Internet access and two cell phones. These items, she said, are particularly essential.
“I remember coming home from deployment and I stopped at BWI,” said Ashness. “We got in too late for me to get my connection. The phones were broke and I was like, ‘Anybody have a quarter?’ I hadn’t used a payphone in a bazillion years, but I needed to call my family to tell them I wouldn’t be home until the day after because I was supposed to be home that evening. It’s important for us to have phones available.”
Ashness had the idea to establish an airport lounge at T.F. Green a few years ago. She originally contacted United Service Organizations, Inc. (USO), a non-profit organization that provides programs, services and live entertainment to American troops and their families, as they fund lounges at airports throughout the nation.
“The USO has been doing a fabulous job with all the facilities they have across the U.S.,” she said. “I have used their facilities and some of the airports allow a tremendous amount of space. It’s really great knowing that the cities and towns are allowing us to have these spaces.”
But after the USO performed a state analysis of how many military members the area has, plus how many go through the airport, they determined it in wasn’t conducive to their organization.
“I was extremely disappointed so I said, ‘OK. I think our military members deserve this, so how can we make it happen,’” she said.
She then contacted Ramona Cook, who she described as a “wonderful fundraiser” with an “unbelievable network in Rhode Island,” as well as fellow military member Staff Sgt. Anthony Paolino, who serves in the Rhode Island Air National Guard. Not only did they vow to form the lounge, they decided to establish RIMO, a non-profit that helps transition vets back to civilian life after serving overseas and informs them about available career and education options for the future. They head the Rhode Island Military and Veteran Student Organization, the Rhode Island Youth Development Academy, as well as support local military and veteran non-profit organizations and programs.
“Opening the airport lounge was one of the first things we planned on paying attention to,” Ashness said, noting that Paolino is the chairman and CEO of RIMO, while Cook is the chairperson of the Service Member Support portion. “She’s been doing unbelievable work. She has been acquiring most of the things for the airport.”
Ashness also praised Paolino, who recently joined forces with Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson, a Navy veteran, along with Army veteran Timothy Howe, commander of the Warwick DAV chapter, and the junior vice under the State Command. Together, they formed the Warwick Veterans Service Organization, an advocacy group that recently established headquarters at JONAH Community Center in Oakland Beach.
“He worked really hard to get that put in,” Ashness said of Paolino, also noting the many “great” people who volunteer their time on the RIMO Board.
In terms of the airport lounge, Ashness said, the facility will have three managers and a staff of 224 community volunteers. To become a volunteer, individuals are asked to fill out an application, acquire a background check and complete a training class. Ideally, each volunteer will dedicate four hours per month, providing superior service to clients.
“Four hours a month isn’t too much to ask for,” she said.
Shifts include 7 to 11 a.m.; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; 3 to 7 p.m.; and 7 to 10 p.m., as the lounge will be open seven days a week. Volunteers will be responsible for assisting guests, ensuring that they show a valid identification card and sign in, since RIMO wants to keep track of how many people use the lounge and what military branch they represent.
Hospital Corpsman First Class Dave Fickel, who served 20 years in the Navy and retired in June 2009, thinks the lounge is a great asset to T.F. Green. Not only does he plan to use it when he travels, but his wife, Annie Tobin-Fickel, flies often for business and will also visit the lounge, as she has a Military Dependent ID card.
“My dad was in Vietnam and the veterans of the past didn’t get stuff like that, so we are extremely grateful for the thought,” said Fickel, a Newport resident who works as a physical therapist at West Bay Orthopedics on Centerville Road. “There are a lot of military people stationed here from all over the world, so it’s really nice.”
To learn more about becoming a volunteer or to fill out an application, send an e-mail to RIMOvolunteer@gmail.com. Please list “Volunteer” in the subject line. While RIMO’s website is under construction, visit RiMilVets.org for more information.