Operation: Military Kids provides three camp programs for children of deployed parents
By Nancy Weiss
Despite the media coverage of military conflicts around the world and the extent of military operations in Connecticut, it is easy to overlook the effects deployments, relocations and the worry that loved ones may be in harm’s way have on families of service members.
Several faculty and staff from the UConn Cooperative Extension System have been working to address these issues. Mary Ellen Welch and Laura Marek, both extension educators, Lisa Marcinkowski, program assistant, and Marc Cournoyer, state 4-H camp specialist, joined forces with military and non-military partners for Operation: Military Kids (OMK), a national effort to reach out to military youth with three programs to support their unique needs. Through grant funding, they offered a Teen Weekend Adventure Camp at the Windham-Tolland 4-H Camp, a Family Fun Boot Camp in Litchfield and a week-long overnight camping experience in Franklin.
This summer, the New London County 4-H Camp was host to 112 campers as part of Operation: Military Kids. The OMK Camp Grant covered camperships for 100 children and additional support was provided by the New London County 4-H Foundation and private gifts. Camp director Amanda Kilton raised funds through outreach on WFSB Channel 3 television and private donations. Linda Wong, OMK summer administrative specialist, was instrumental in encouraging community members to make donations. Cournoyer, Welch and Don Beebe, president of the New London County 4-H Foundation, appealed to radio listeners on WICH.
Kilton says, “We were so happy to be able to accommodate all the children who signed up, even those on the waiting list. The staff is helping kids feel comfortable and letting them get away from the rest of the world."
Operation: Military Kids Camp offers all the basics of a summer program, but with a special twist to help children relate to the experiences of their family members. Mock deployment activity included distribution of personalized dog tags, camouflage bandanas, trying on backpacks and eating military rations. A bounce house was set up to serve as the transition experience between civilian and military life.
Rebecca Pieper, OMK camp coordinator, is a UConn biology major who plans to attend medical school. She is also from a military family; her younger brother is in basic training and an older one served two terms in Iraq.
“I think this camp is a great opportunity for kids to connect with others who are like them. These kids deserve this. After talking with them about having a parent or loved one deployed, there was an ‘aha' moment when the kids high-fived each other. They knew they were not alone and that the other kids understood them,” said Pieper.
At the archery range, boys and girls shot plastic arrows at cups on the ground and responded eagerly to questions about their connection to the military. Two boys whose fathers are submariners described in detail what it feels like to board a submarine. A girl smiled proudly while saying her father is a chief petty officer.
Camp president Don Beebe expressed his gratitude that Mary Ellen Welch, other extension educators and military and non-military partners had applied for the grant and worked closely with it. Beebe hopes Operation: Military Kids Camp will be offered again next year at the Franklin facility.
“Our teen staff has been phenomenal in helping the military kids fit in to the camp program. As early as Monday night, they were clearly feeling on board with the camp spirit,” Beebe said.
Welch notes that Operation: Military Kids is supported in Connecticut by a number of partners in addition to the UConn Cooperative Extension System. Partners include the American Legion Department of Connecticut, American Legion Auxiliary Department of Connecticut, American Red Cross, Coast Guard Academy Child Development Center, Connecticut State Department of Education, Connecticut National Guard Family Program Director, Connecticut National Guard State Youth Coordinator, Navy Submarine Base NLON School Liaison, Navy Submarine Base Children and Youth Program, Joint Family Support Assistance Program, Military OneSource, and 2-1-1 Child Care.
“The grant ended August 31, 2011. I hope we can apply next year and keep this wonderful program going,” says Welch.