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Sgt. Robert Cooper, Camp Atterbury Public Affairs
CAMP ATTERBURY, Ind. –05.12.2009 Ah, summer in Indiana... Time for warm weather, sun-brewed iced tea and lazy hammock naps in the back yard. A time for families to get together and enjoy the fruits of nature, and a time to lay back and relax.
While some families will actually have such opportunities this summer, many others, particularly military families, won't have the chance to soak up the sunshine. From mandatory National Guard training to the ever-present possibility of deployment, summer can often turn from bright to bleak. For children, the thought of losing an entire summer to a deployment or other military event can be dreadful.
Luckily, there is hope and the ultimate weapon against summer boredom. Since the dawn of time, moms and dads everywhere have relied upon this weapon's power to both keep their kids occupied and give parents a chance to drink in a week of adult solitude. It's summer camp, and for military children, two particular camps are reaching out this year to provide a unique approach to traditional camp activities at little no cost to the families.
Among the lush forests of Princeton, Ind., rests the YMCA's Camp Carson, host to the National Military Family Association's Operation Purple Summer Camp, one summer camp that is dedicating two separate weeks to military children ages 7-16 this year. Thomas Bentley, the camp's director, said that Operation Purple focuses on the fact that military children aren't alone when facing the challenges of deployment and military service, echoing to campers their motto, "The kids serve too."
"We want our campers to have fun, make friends, and learn that there are many people out there that support them," Bentley said.
While the camp offers the normal slew of activities, such as horseback riding, archery, canoeing, sailing, fishing, swimming and other events, what sets Operation Purple apart, Bentley said, is the flexibility for campers to choose what they do.
"The first two days acclimate the children to the idea of designing their own schedule," Bentley said. "During the last part of the week, they have the freedom to attend whichever event or activity they choose. Where else can a 9-year-old make his or her own choices, to be able to say that they got to do it themselves? It's very empowering."
Bentley said that the freedom inspires campers to make the best out of the unique situation of having a Soldier for a parent.
"That's what sets us apart," he said. "What we notice the most is when the kids leave here, they have this feeling of independence. They have control over their actions, because when they return next year, they can improve on skill levels set from previous experience."
Bentley said that 80 to 90 percent of those who attended last year have registered to return in 2009. While the activities and camaraderie are good for the kids, one great benefit to the parents is the fact that Operation Purple is free to military children. The average cost of summer camp at Camp Carson is normally $670 per child.
"It's a grant money-based camp," Bentley said. "If you consider yourself a military family, then apply. Some parents are veterans, some are deploying and some are going through training," he said. "The target we're looking for are kids whose parents are within a 15-month window of deploying or coming home. We have a ranking system of the most-needed, so if there's a big deployment coming up within an area, then the children of those families get first priority."
While last year's funding allowed 80 kids to attend the camp during one week, this year has increased to two separate one-week camps for up to 240, scheduled for June 28-July 3 and July 26-31. Bentley said he hopes to see more support for the program so more children can attend in the future.
"Last year, it was heart-wrenching to hear what those kids go through on a day-to-day basis, so it killed us not get those other kids in," he said.
While Operation Purple offers open-ended fun for military kids, older youngsters 9-17 who are looking for a more Army-centric summer experience should look no further than the Indiana National Guard Youth Camp and Camp Atterbury. For $100 [or $50 for children 16-17 to serve as junior counselors], kids get a chance to fill their parents shoes for a week and take on a few Army challenges as well.
"They get to see exactly what their parents go through," said Carly Glorioso, the camp's director. "The children are structured into platoons, learn drill-and-ceremony and even get to fire an M-16 rifle."
While the camp, which has been going strong for 17 years, may sound strict and more akin to basic training, it's actually a great chance for military children to share their experience with other peers, Glorioso said.
"If they're that one kid in that one school whose parents is deployed, it's tough," Glorioso said. "But when they get to Youth Camp, they're surrounded by those they can relate to. This helps to build additional support systems for them."
Missy Paris agrees. At 15 years old, the daughter of Indiana National Guardsman Keith Paris can attest to the camp's ability to bring her closer with those who can relate. A camper since 2004, Paris said she didn't expect to be around so many other military children.
"It was a bit different, because at that point in time, the only military children I knew was my sister," she said. "It was a little isolating before that. When I arrived, the immediate effect was shell shock, because I didn't expect that many Soldiers have kids."
Paris said it wasn't long before her immediate family soon expanded to fellow military youth who shared her same experiences, such as deployment and the absence of loved ones.
"I got to a point where I was with a family I could fit in with," she said. "You don't have to look around and wonder if any of your fellow campers have military family members because you know they do. It's freeing, because if I talked to just any other teenager, they wouldn't understand what I go through."
Pairs said that the camp has also taught her patience when dealing with the barrage of questions about being a military child she gets from both her peers and elders.
"It's made me more patient when listening to their questions about what's going on [overseas]," Paris said. "They probably don't realize that the questions are reasonable to them, but they are also questions that might illicit negative emotions for me."
The real benefit, however, is the support Paris said she provides to some of the younger campers.
"When you're at that camp and you hear a younger camper ask that same question, it makes you think through the answer because you don't want to give them false ideas or make them worry," she said. "You have to think about your answers a lot more."
Despite April registration deadlines and a heavy demand for greater camper capacity, both Glorioso and Bentley said that as long as there is a need, the camps will always offer the chance for some military children to get away this summer, even if it's just one week.
"It's the least we could do for these kids; to give back to the families that have already given so much," Bentley said.