It's coordinating the daily carpools when Kim Rawley really feels her husband's absence. Her four kids in Lakeville need rides to hockey, softball, Girl Scouts, Lego League, church and the orthodontist.

"It's very hard to juggle everything," said Rawley, a sixth-grade math teacher whose husband, Daniel, is serving his second tour in Afghanistan with the Air National Guard.

Volunteers with the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon campaign help Rawley with some of that driving -- and trying to keep life as normal as possible for the kids until dad comes home. Volunteers also bring over occasional meals and help with some housework and laundry. They even arranged for a contractor to patch a hole in the Rawleys' kitchen ceiling.

"He wouldn't let us pay," Rawley said. "He wants us to call and let him know when my husband is back safe."

Beyond the Yellow Ribbon is a network of volunteers, nonprofits, civic groups, businesses and local governments that collaborate to ensure that service members, their families and veterans have some help on the home front.

Minnesota, with its 20,000 guardsman and reservists, is the only state in the country with the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon community campaign, according to the state's director of military outreach, and south-metro communities have blazed the trail.

One could call Dakota County the epicenter of the movement. Farmington became the first Beyond the Yellow Ribbon city in the state in 2008. Now, nine cities in Dakota County are. That's one of the highest concentrations in Minnesota.

Dakota County as a whole just earned the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon designation in March. Scott County, along with the cities of Belle Plaine, Jordan, New Prague, Prior Lake, Shakopee and Savage, formed the South of the River Beyond the Yellow Ribbon network and also were recognized in March.

"It's just been phenomenal, the way Minnesota is literally leading the nation in how we are supporting our veterans and active military in the community," said Annette Kuyper, director of military outreach for Minnesota's Department of Military Affairs.

Multiple forms

Help for military families comes in many forms: marshaling a crew of high school athletes to help a service member's mom move; providing monthly child care so military spouses can have a night out; building a ramp for a disabled veteran; preparing meals; hosting a Christmas party for military families and tutoring military children.

Businesses participate by hiring veterans, offering career counseling and giving discounts to military families.

County participation is critical because it helps connect military families with social services, veterans' benefits, career counseling and educational opportunities. Dakota County also hosts a monthly meeting for all of its Beyond the Yellow Ribbon cities so they can share ideas and pool resources.

"We are that connective thread. We want to make sure our cities and communities are working together," said Lisa Thomas, director of Dakota County veteran services.

The biggest challenge is identifying families and military members and convincing them it's OK to ask for some help, Thomas said.

"Our military members are very proud and maybe don't want a lot of recognition," Thomas said. "It's hard to ask for help when you've been holding a machine gun for a year and taking care of business on a very different level than we understand."

Rawley agrees that military families often don't seek out help. They try to gut through alone. She found the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon network in an effort to help another military family.

"I had a student whose family was also going through a deployment. His mom was in tears at conferences, so I called around for help and Annette [Kuyper] said, 'How about you?'" Rawley explained. "It was easier to ask for help for the other family than to ask for help for me."

Dakota County and participating cities allocate staff time and meeting space to the campaign, but it's volunteers and businesses that donate the time and money to assist families.

To become a Beyond the Yellow Ribbon community, counties and cities must form a steering committee and develop a plan demonstrating a long-term commitment to service members and military families. The state of Minnesota bestows the status on qualifying counties and communities.

Ellen Able is the volunteer communications director for Lakeville Beyond the Yellow Ribbon and speaks on behalf of the group and volunteers at events. Her children also baby-sit for military families.

"It's a great way for me to do my part because I didn't serve," Able said. "I have my kids involved. I wanted them to completely understand what freedom is about because it doesn't come free."