The last ‘person’ you’d expect to see strolling the halls of an expo dedicated to all things Army would be a preschooler’s red-ist, furriest, giggliest friend. But there was Elmo, not only highlighting Sesame Street’s Talk, Listen, Connect program for military families, but the importance our military leaders place on a strong family as a key element to a war fighter’s readiness and resilience. Eleven years of conflict has brought a new understanding, professionalism and creativity to helping children handle deployments.
With grown children and being a few years removed from life in a unit, I was amazed at the family resources on display. It made me wish these services had been around for my son and two daughters. During dad’s first deployment to Bosnia in the 90s, our Family Support Groups (before the name change) thought the best way to help our kids was to keep them busy with parties and chaplain-organized Friday-night family suppers The philosophy we shared was “keep them busy to keep their minds off the separation,” and it seemed to work.
The second deployment occurred shortly after 9/11 and my now school-aged children were much more aware of the war their dad was participating in. Family support efforts were rudimentary in those early war years. Our Family ‘Readiness’ Groups now had a Deployment specialist at ACS, but our efforts still involved keeping kids and parents busy with positive activities. (Please remember, I am speaking just about my own experience and not that this was Army wide.) I didn’t even think about any stress or psychological issues my children might have experienced.
The third deployment saw dad leave, not with a unit, but on his own. There were no clear lines of support other than some very good neighbors. Fortunately we were able to stay in our quarters and keep the family stable with school and friends. I relied on routine to help us all cope with dad being gone. While the older two handled the separation, it was our youngest who suffered and it was the first time I saw the emotional difficulties many military children go through. It was especially hard for her when dad was asked to stay for a follow-on year. She had been counting on an end date and suddenly that was taken away, and being at a school where it seemed she was the only one with a deployed parent didn’t help. She would have benefited from programs like Back Pack Journalist or Student 2 Student.
Family programs have become much more sophisticated in recognizing and helping military children of all ages deal with the emotional stress of the back to back deployments of their parents. What’s even more exciting is that these programs have not just come from the Department of Defense but from the outside community looking for ways to support military members and families, and from creative individuals within our broad military family. Here’s a few of the programs featured at the AUSA expo. If they are new to you, I am so happy to share the information. If you have used any of these programs, please let us know how they helped your family in our comments section or through a Facebook comment I can post for you.
Operation Give a Hug (www.ogah.org): For founder and Army-spouse Susan Agustin, it started as a simple way to help her daughter Maddie Grace cope with dad’s deployment. Back in 2002, Maddie had gotten a Huggie Miss You doll as a gift from her cousins, which had their picture in the face. When Maddie’s dad, Cpt. Gene Agustin deployed, Susan got the idea of putting dad’s face in the doll. It quickly became Maddie’s take-everywhere source of comfort while dad was gone.
“Since she took it everywhere, other military spouses saw it, and would ask how to get one,” Susan told me. “I contacted the woman who made the original and worked with her on creating a military doll.” In 2003 she began distributing the dolls as a home-based business to her local military community, but as the deployments grew, so did the requests from across the military. In 2004, Susan created her non-profit, Operation Give a Hug, and in 2008 partnered with the Dept. of the Army to create a special doll for children of deployed Soldiers. It features a hangtag with tips and resources for parents. Operation Give a Hug has been able to provide more than 500,000 comfort dolls to military children of all services across the world. Dolls are distributed through Family Readiness Groups, school counselors, major Military Medical facilities, Operation Military Kids programs and family life consultants, and other venues. You can also contact OGAH for a doll.
A Backpack Journalist (www.abackpackjournalist.com): This relatively new program for military youth aged 6-11 and 12-18 was designed to help build resilience in children by helping them find their voice. The concept is understandable – by aiding our military youth develop their creative communication skills, they’ll be better able to communicate their problems and emotions with parents, teachers and peers. The organization provides classes, workshops, summer camps and exciting events to help kids get through all phases of the deployment cycle. A few of the Backpack Journalists were on hand to share their experiences covering the Army 10-Miler and AUSA Annual Meeting – from interviewing veterans and Wounded Warriors, to joining in a press conference with Gen. Raymond Odierno. A few of the teen journalists were family members from our own Washington DC National Guard. From creating deployment raps, to photography, to writing hard news stories, Backpack Journalist is opening new doors for our older children to connect and cope with the stress of military life. And your child can find them on Facebook!
Student 2 Student/Junior Student 2 Student (www.militarychild.org): Imagine your high schooler or middle school student being able to email, text, Facebook chat or actually talk to a fellow military child at a new school before you arrive. Imagine them being able to set up a lunch date for the first day of school; learn about clubs, sports and courses and teachers and actually be excited about going to a new school. That is the goal of this student-led program developed by the Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC).
Military and civilian teens and pre-teens are trained to lead these peer-based programs at their schools to help ease the trauma of school transition. You can find a full list of participating schools on their site. When checking the lists, I was disappointed to see that while many Maryland high schools have adopted the program, only Mt. Vernon High School is listed for Northern Virginia and no middle schools participate in either state. Are there parents out there willing to step in and get your local school administrators on board? MCEC can help you.
The Little C.H.A.M.P.S. (http://www.harmonyhearth.com/CHAMPS.html): Elementary age military children now have their own support program through Little CHAMPS. This brand new public health initiative is designed to encourage coping skills in younger children and raise awareness among their civilian peers, teachers and school leaders about what they are experiencing. Through the book, “The Little C.H.A.M.P.S - Child Heroes Attached to Military Personnel,” songs, video, and training materials, schools can help younger military children feel more understood at school, said developer and author Debbie Fink. The CHAMPS program has partnered with the USO, Armed Forces Red Cross, MCEC and others to share this initiative with the more than 600,000 military elementary aged children.
Elmo and Resources for Military Families (www.FamiliesNearandFar.org): According to Sesame Workshop director Lynn Chwatsky, Sesame Streethas been working on projects to support military children since 2005. These programs are designed to not only help toddlers and pre-schoolers, but also parents and caregivers by providing age-appropriate tools to support and reassure children. Chwatsky noted that their programs are effective because the characters resonate with children – who doesn’t love Elmo; it’s from a child’s perspective and it speaks to families directly, encouraging communication. School-aged military children can also take advantage on the new Electric Company activities on line. With the USO, Sesame Workshop has been taking a deployment themed show to military communities and now has introduced two APPS on the Android Market app store: 'Feel Electric' for school-age kids and 'Military Families Near and Far Resource App.' Answers to the tough questions right at your fingertips! The "Talk, Listen, Connect" series has English and Spanish video programs on deployments, homecomings, change and now one dealing with grief.
This has been a lot of information, but hopefully can help a family in our reach. In my next AUSA Notes, thoughts on budget fears, resilience programs and something special for the male spouses out there.