TODAY   |  July 28, 2013

Military family fills dad’s seat while deployed

Instead of dwelling on an empty seat, one Navy family decided to fill their dad’s place at the table. Their year of dinners is chronicles in “Dinner with the Smileys,” a book that’s sparked something of a meal-time revolution. TODAY’s Erica Hill reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> over this family.

>> reporter: family dinners are about as homespun as it gets. yet for millions of families, they've become a rare treat, especially military families like thesmileys. dad dustin is a relun nant in the navy who returned to a year-long deployment to africa last december to reclaim his seat at the family table, a spot some 250 guests helped to keep warm over the course of that year as part of a project that became known as "dinner with the smileys."

>> i'm not a super great entertainer. i wondered how we would find 52 guests.

>> reporter: the idea started small, invite someone to share a meal with sarah and her sons to help make them less awkward.

>> dylan would take them to the seat and say this is my dad's chair. i'm sitting here at the family asking about the kid's day at school, something he wishes he could do and can't.

>> reporter: it was a year full of lessons. up first, maine senator susan collins , happy to join the smileys after receiving a personal letter from 11-year-old ford.

>> did you meet r2d2?

>> nod nod.

>> what was r2d2 like?

>> he was big.

>> bigger than you thought he would be?

>> this is susan, our guest.

>> reporter: sarah is quick to note the dinners were not about china or fancy food. they were true family meals, complete with wrestling matches, barking dogs and that empty seat.

>> if you haven't lived through your dad being on deployment, you probably don't know what it's like.

>> what do you think the hardest part is?

>> knowing he's not there, knowing he can't play catch with you. knowing when you wake up he's not upstairs, stuff like that.

>> the dinners were a nice way to kind of meet new people as well as kind of forget that he's gone for the meantime.

>> reporter: it didn't take long pour the smileys to inspire other families. fellow navy wives theresa jones and stacy morrissey first heard about it on facebook. sarah 's inbox, full of stories ab about the impact of sharing a meal and the comfort it can bring.

>> what was it like for you to watch continuing this new chapter in your family's life happening while you were halfway across the globe?

>> it kind of kept me going. i was very happy to see them dealing with it in a positive way.

>> reporter: while the dinners have stopped for now, the lessons have not. one of the most important goes back to that empty seat.

>> it's not just military family missing someone at the dinner table, there's people all through our community and neighborhoods who eat alone every night.

>> reporter: though for some, that's starting to change, one meal at a time.