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Camp helps kids cope with soldier-parents' absence

By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia

Children of full-time, active-duty soldiers are somewhat prepared for the possibility of a parent being deployed during wartime. Children of reservists and guardsmen typically aren't.

To help military kids cope with separation and other issues related to having a soldier-parent, the University of Georgia Extension Service has designed a week of 4-H camp just for them.

"Operation 4-H: Joint Forces at the Falls" is set for July 11-15 at Wahsega 4-H Center in Dahlonega, Ga. It will bring together 120 of Georgia's military teenagers.

The grant-funded camp costs just $25 for the week. It's open to 13- through 15-year-old kids whose parent is now, will soon be or has recently been deployed. The parent can be in any branch of service, with emphasis on the Army National Guard, Air National Guard or Army Reserve.

'Suddenly military'

"This camp will especially benefit children of parents who are what we call 'suddenly military,'" said Mandy Marable, a UGA Extension 4-H specialist and Operation Military Kids state coordinator. "Suddenly military kids are those who have never before experienced their guard or reserve parent being deployed."

In the past, their parents served their country by spending one weekend a month or a few training weeks each summer away from home, Marable said.

"With Operation Enduring Freedom and the global war on terrorism, our country is relying more and more on guard and reservists to defend our freedom," she said. "When a parent leaves for duty, it impacts the entire family. Operation 4-H is designed to help them cope."

Camp Robins

For the past two years, Georgia 4-H has offered a similar camp Houston County. Peggy Bledsoe, the Houston County 4-H agent, and Carolyn Stevens, the flight chief at Robins Air Force Base, helped plan the first camp, Camp Robins.

"Being part of a military community, Peggy and Carolyn fully understand how families are impacted by deployment," Marable said. "Now that we're offering the camp statewide, we're pulling in resources like UGA Family and Consumer Sciences experts Don Bower and Sharon Gibson, who are aware of military family needs and have appropriate educational materials."

At Camp Robins, Bledsoe found that going through experiences like those of their parents greatly benefits military kids.

"Our campers go through the same 'bag and drag' experience and deployment line on the first day," she said. "They're issued dog tags and a black T-shirt, which serves as their uniform."

Rise and shine

The military campers are awakened at 7 a.m. for their daily exercise regime. They even eat military rations.

"The kids don't really like getting up so early. But we want the camp to be realistic," Bledsoe said. "They don't eat exactly like their parents. We only serve them the MREs (meals ready to eat) once."

Bledsoe said she modeled Camp Robins after a similar camp at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. She's excited to see it expanded to a statewide camp.

"We're now offering Camp Robins for younger military children," she said. "No matter where it's held, it's a wonderful, wonderful camp that really meets a need in our state."

One of the main goals is to have the teens experience military life, Marable said. But it's still 4-H camp.

"The kids get to do all the things we do in every other 4-H camp across our state," she said. "They'll go swimming and tubing, make crafts, climb high and low ropes courses and play ultimate frisbee, too."

For more on "Operation 4-H: Joint Forces at the Falls," see the program's Web site at www.georgia4h .org/main/Headlines/OMK/.

(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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