Fort Campbell, KY |The Fort Campbell Courier | July 12, 2012
Forging friendships by Heather Clark, Courier staff
The childhood years are typically the best and most carefree a person will experience in his lifetime.
For an unfortunate few, these pristine years are extremely altered by the loss of a loved one. Fewer places see this as often as military installations, where constant deployments increase the odds of a child losing a parent or sibling.
Because this is to be expected, installations provide various programs, support groups and services to assist grieving Families during difficult times. For children, assistance is sometimes offered through counseling and specialized summer camps.
The grief process, however, differs from person to person. Sometimes, a child who’s suffered a loss wants regular things, like the chance to get back to simple childhood pleasures.
Fort Campbell’s Survivor Outreach Services, part of Army Community Services, teamed up with Shirley West of the Armed Services YMCA to design a summer camp with those kids in mind.
“There are multiple non-profits that offer camps for our Families to work through their grief and deal with the loss,” explained Suzy Yates, program manager at SOS. “We wanted to give them the opportunity to just come out and be kids. ‘Have fun’ is the number one rule out here.”
SOS summer camp is in its second year, and surviving children, ages 9 through 12, gathered at Camp Hinsch Sunday for a week’s worth of fun activities, including bowling, fishing and water park excursions. With them for the ride are Fort Campbell Soldiers who donated their time to act as counselors and mentors.
“These kids have been through a lot,” said Sgt. Nathan Ballard, 1st Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division. “They definitely need some mentorship, and that’s what we’re here to do. We’re here to help them and try to get their minds off their issues.”
Ballard opted to volunteer as a counselor after looking into the program. Through the donation of his time, he has gained back a great deal from the children he has met.
“It definitely gives you a huge insight, interacting with these kids who have lost loved ones,” he said. “It helps me better interact with my own kids as well, and listen to them the way I do with these kids.”
While the team-building games and camp adventures are fun, the relationships forged between campers, counselors and peers seem to be what the children enjoy most.
“I really like being around people I have something in common with,” said 10-year-old Christian Wadkins, a first time camper at SOS. “Everybody here has lost somebody in the military; it’s nice to talk with somebody who knows what you’re going through.”
Yates said that SOS workers have found that peer support is among the most effective coping methods for surviving Families.
“It’s about making those relationships here and forming those friendships so they have somebody in their age group to rely on after they leave camp,” she said. “If they’re having a bad day, they can pick up the phone or go on Facebook; they have somebody to reach out to that truly understands.”
These bonds are what brought 12-year-old Bayleigh Dostie back to the camp for a second year.
“I like getting to know people, and getting to share stories with them,” said Dostie. “Sharing stories about your past – it doesn’t have to be about your loved one, though most of them are. We just share stories about our lives.”
The common bond that joins the children of SOS camp is a tragic one, but it is one they choose not to let define them. Because of this, the grounds of Camp Hinsch are rife with laughter, and heartfelt hugs are in ample supply.
“That is what we want them to take away from this,” said Yates. “That it’s OK to be kids; it’s OK for them to laugh again, and it’s OK for them to move forward. They are one of the most resilient groups of Family members on Fort Campbell.”
Yates says that the SOS camp is always looking for volunteer counselors, and that those interested can contact the SOS office at (270) 798-0272. Though not a requirement, she says that Soldiers are especially encouraged to get involved.
“Not only is it a benefit for our children that are here, we also see the benefit of the Soldiers giving back, many of whom made promises to take care of the fallen Soldiers’ Families,” she said.
Ballard predicts that, deployment schedule permitting, he will be back again next summer.
“It’s a life-changing experience,” said Ballard. “It’s different to see things from the children’s eyes, and see a new way of thinking about and handling things.”