When one or both parents are deployed, families are turned upside-down. Logistically, financially, emotionally - the challenges are sudden and dramatic. For National Guard and Army and Navy Reserve families, the immediate impact of deployment can be even more unsettling. Guardsmen called to duty may experience a severe drop in pay, and because these families typically do not live on a military base, the children of guardsmen and reservists may not have many, or any, other friends whose parents are on active duty.
Since 2003, a philanthropic program called Operation Summer CampTM (OSC) has helped some military families face those challenges by sending about 150 kids to camp, tuition-free. Launched by the nonprofit American Camp Association (ACA) Keystone Section, the regional ACA office serving camps and families in Pennsylvania and Delaware, OSC matches military children with one to seven-week "camperships" donated by day and overnight camps. Together, ACA member camps have donated nearly $400,000 in total camperships.
OSC started as a quick response to an immediate need, says ACA Keystone president Cheryl Magen. "When parents are deployed, families can lose income, childcare, and stability. And it's not uncommon for a family to have both parents serving simultaneously."
A real morale boost
ACA Keystone first approached the PA Air National Guard's 111th Fighter Wing to find families that might be in need of camperships. Working through the Guard's Family Readiness Group (FRG) coordinator, who helped match kids and camps, Tech. Sgt. Maureen Mowers' two sons were able to spend the summer at Camp Kweebec. While she was deployed for basic training, the boys enjoyed their first overnight camp experience, and Mowers knew they were safe and happy. Mowers says, "It's very generous of the camps to provide family support. I'm glad the children have had the opportunity to experience camp."
Unlike "Operation Purple" camps run by the National Military Family Association and other week-long camp programs exclusively for military children, OSC allows a child to experience a traditional camp program with non-military kids. Lt. Col. Scott Hreso, a fighter pilot for 30 years and a single father of four, said that Operation Summer Camp enabled his 15-year old daughter to attend International Gymnastics Camp, where she "made a lot of friends, improved her technical cheerleading skills, and got a real morale boost."
Hreso's children have lived through his deployments many times. "Because she was with other, non-military kids, camp was a good way for my daughter to forget about her family problems, learn a lot, and feel like a regular kid," says Hreso. In appreciation, he presented the camp with an American flag that he flew over Iraq.
In its first year, OSC was recognized by the Pentagon as an outstanding program. ACA Keystone hopes that as more ACA regional offices partner with other armed forces units around the country, the program will grow to serve more military children. Magen says, "Each summer we try to help as many children as we can."
Building a partnership
To launch OSC in other states, Guard and Reserve parents should ask their unit's FRG or child and youth services (CYS) coordinator to contact the ACA regional office serving their state. While family assistance programs in other armed forces branches may go by different names, all of the divisions assist their families with a range of services for children. Parents and coordinators can find contacts for ACA regional offices, as well as useful information about the value of summer camp and preparing a child for camp, at www.campparents.org.
Once an OSC partnership is built between an ACA office and a military unit, ACA solicits camperships from its members, but because military regulations may restrict access to families, ACA relies on the military coordinator to serve as a liaison between parents and participating camps.
Jean Moretti, Family Readiness Coordinator for the 111th Fighter Wing, says that OSC gives children a chance to play and live like other children, away from the constant worry and uncertainty that comes with active military parents. "Military family children would never have had these opportunities if it wasn't for the generosity of the ACA member camps," says Moretti.
Camp and youth development professionals know that among its many benefits, summer camp allows kids to turn off the electronics, reconnect with the natural world, and build meaningful human connections with new friends and nurturing adults.
Camp Oneka, a residential camp in Pennsylvania, has been a summer home for thousands of girls for 101 years. Campers like Prince Grace of Monaco - when she was simply Grace Kelly of Philadelphia - and her sisters, nieces, and daughters, came to Oneka for fun, friendship, and fresh air, a break from life in the city.
Oneka owner Barbara Dohner says, "The traditions that have developed at camp over the years are central to the Oneka experience. Our small, caring, family-type environment has helped girls grow and achieve their full potential for decades. We have had a great experience with girls coming to Oneka through Operation Summer Camp. Our goal is to provide an opportunity for the campers to have fun and new experiences, as well as a respite from stress at home when parents are deployed overseas. We are so appreciative of the sacrifices that military families make to serve our country. We are glad to be able to help these families."
Assisting military families may require camps to adapt to sudden parental deployments and military protocols at the same time, but camps are typically up to the challenge. "ACA has been serving camps and families for 100 years," says Magen. "Camp owners and directors have an unwavering commitment to helping children, and camp - like the military - teaches skills like cooperation, team-building, and leadership. Camp people are used to pitching in. When we said military kids needed help, our camps responded. Operation Summer Camp gives children the gift of a summer experience at a time when they need it most. Camp is good for kids. A camp experience is good for life."
Photo caption: Tech Sgt. Maureen Mowers, serving in the PA Air National Guard 111th Fighter Wing, pays a surprise visit to her son, Ryan, at Camp Kweebec.
Ellen Warren coordinates Operation Summer Camp for the American Camp Association Keystone Section. ACA celebrates 100 years of service in 2010.