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Posted 8/12/2016

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By Amy Tolson
Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville

 It’s the gift that will continue to give for years to come. 

When retired Lt. Col. Russ Dunford’s family asked him what he hoped to find under the Christmas tree last year, Dunford knew that his grandmother’s old adage had finally come true – “At some point in your life you make the mental transition that it’s better to give than receive.”

“I’m certainly at that point,” said Dunford, chief of operations for the Corps of Engineers’ Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville.

 Instead, Dunford wanted to give the gift of opportunity to a young man or woman growing up in southern West Virginia, where Dunford was born and raised. He wanted to send them to Space Camp.

“The movie ‘October Sky’ very much portrays where I’m from today,” said Dunford, pointing to the film, which depicts the early years of NASA engineer Homer Hickam growing up in West Virginia. “It’s coal oriented, it’s timber oriented. Right now it’s probably the closest thing to a Depression-era area you’ll find. It’s just economically depressed.

 “Great people, but we just don’t know the opportunities that exist. I remember when I was at Meadow Bridge Elementary I didn’t even know where Huntsville, Alabama, was. Until I was in the Army I had never been west of the Mississippi, and I thought you had to have a passport to get to Kentucky.”

 Come Christmas morning Dunford found a single gift box under the tree that contained an essay, “Why I would want to go to Space Camp.” Unbeknownst to him, his wife and daughters had contacted his former elementary school seeking a student who might be interested in attending Space Camp. Conner Mullins, with a love for aviation and the like, fit the bill perfectly and won the essay contest. The family modeled the selection process after the Huntsville Quad-A (Army Aviation Association of America) Space Camp Scholarship program, which Dunford had volunteered and supported in the past. But the Quad-A focus is Huntsville – reaching back to an area that knows little of Huntsville was the desire.

 For one week in July, Conner took in the sights and sounds of Space Camp, learning about space, rockets and missions, and meeting other campers not only from across the U.S., but the world. His parents came and stayed and visited the Rocket City as well. 

 “This was an opportunity for Conner to see things that most people have only ever heard of or dreamed of,” said Conner’s mom Shelley Mullins. “He was able to meet people from not only other states but also other countries. He was able to be placed with people who have similar interests as him and was able to hear and see firsthand that dreams do come true with hard work and dedication. He was able to learn about things that, I, as his mother, have only ever been able to read to him about.”

Conner is taking those lessons back to school this fall. With aspirations to have his pilot’s license by the time he’s 16, the 11-year-old now checks in with his mom every day to see if she’s found someone to help make that goal a reality. With a love for basketball, but a realization that he’s probably not destined to go pro, Conner instead looks at the sport as a way to pay for his engineering or aerospace degree.

“Not only has Space Camp helped to foster his career goals, but it is helping a very shy and quiet little boy learn how to speak in public in front of a crowd,” Mullins said. “He will be presenting to his school, and possibly to a few other schools close by us, about his experience and how it has changed him. We are hoping it will get more children interested in science, space, math and engineering. It has sure done it for Conner.”

 But perhaps the greatest lesson of all was the very idea that started it all – it is better to give than to receive.

“The experience for Conner and our family was not only about Space Camp, but also a strong lesson in giving,” Mullins said. “Conner met two people, Russell and Joan-Marie (Dunford), who are true givers. In today’s society it is a constant struggle to teach your children how to give from the kindness of your heart, the true humanitarian side of life, and ask for nothing in return. What Russell, Joan-Marie, Annie and Abby have offered him is not only a path to a dream, but a chance to see that good people do exist. They have also given him a chance to witness how one kind gesture can change a person and set them on a path they never knew was really possible. He has a memory of kindness to keep with him forever, and the opportunity to model himself and his actions from here to forever after the kindness that was given to him.”

 For Dunford that’s what it was all about – planting a seed, in the hopes Conner will see the realm of the possible, and in turn, grow. Dunford said the Army, Redstone and the Corps of Engineers does this with various STEM outreach programs, so taking it “back home” to those who don’t get the exposure or such opportunities goes a long way. 

“Unlike a mutual fund where you see the return on investment quarterly, you’re not going to see this,” Dunford said. “You might not know about this ‘return on investment’ for 10 years, or even 20. If we reach back and plant a seed – that’s all we can do.”