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Aug 9, 2009 4:48:00 PM

Operation Kid Comfort keeps kids closer to deployed parents

KILLEEN DAILY HERALD | AUG. 9, 2009

The children's eyes lit up in awe and excitement as they received quilts with photos of deployed parents at the second Operation Kid Comfort July 31 at the Armed Services YMCA in Killeen. Operation Kid Comfort presented 18 quilts and pillow shams to children waiting for parents to return from Iraq and Afghanistan. The children pointed at the photos of their family members and hugged the quilts.

"It is awesome," said Erica Oleksiak whose daughter Ashlyne received a quilt. "It is even better than I imagined."

Making the effort

Each Wednesday morning, the ASYMCA bustles with activity as a group of volunteers, who have taken over an open space in the facility, work to create quilts for the children of deployed Fort Hood soldiers. The space is filled with cutting tables, ironing boards and sewing machines, and stacks of fabric cover every surface. Plastic bags hold the makings of an entire quilt, labeled with a child's name, waiting for the next worker in the process.

These are not just blankets of fabric and batting. Each quilt is covered with photos of a parent or parents far from home that provide a lasting sense of comfort for a child left behind. There are nine panels on a quilt, eight photos and a program logo panel with the child's name and the date.

"When I wear it, it feels like I'm thinking of Daddy," said 7-year-old Cooper Reeves. "I take it with me and I sleep with it."

Operation Kid Comfort in Killeen is a volunteer program fully funded by the ASYMCA. The program began May 1, and presented 22 quilts at their first presentation June 19.

"The kid's faces just light up. They see Mom and Dad and they can touch them," said volunteer Tracie Reeves. "It makes all the time worth it."

Hits close to home

Reeves, whose husband is deployed with the 1st Air Calvary, has three children. She joined the group in May as a seamstress, but said she fills in everywhere.

My kids have quilts and they have not let go of them, she said.

"This is one of the best programs I have found in the Army. It touches hearts and kids, and makes a lasting treasure," Reeves said.

The group makes quilts for children six and under, and pillow shams for the older kids. Both quilts and shams are free to the families who request them. The soldier must have deployed from Fort Hood to be eligible. Operation Kid Comfort programs are active in several areas across the nation.

Tina Wilgeroth has also been with the organization since May.

Her husband is also deployed with the 1st Air Calvary and she has two sons. She started out cutting fabric and now spends most of her time on the computer preparing the photos. After cropping, she prints the photos on transfer paper that can be washed and sealed to last.

"My little one has a blanket that he took to visit his grandparents in Pennsylvania so he could show Dad off," Wilgeroth said. "My oldest son has a pillow sham."

Karol Pinkerton works as Military Liaison for ASYMCA and is coordinator for the Operation Kid Comfort program. Her soldier has been in the Army for 20 years and her kids are grown.

There wasn't a program like this when they were young, she said.

"There are lots of programs out there that speak to the well being of kids, but this gives them something to hold and hang on to," Pinkerton said. "Back-to-back deployments are stressful on kids."

The Origins

Soldiers miss birthdays and holidays with the children, and having something to hold and look at, especially for the very young children, helps them to feel closer to that parent, Pinkerton said.

"Our program got started here when someone on Fort Hood got wind of the program in Virginia and started calling and emailing," Pinkerton said. "We started with three people and it has grown and grown."

An ongoing process

The volunteers can complete as many as three quilts in a day at a cost of about $45 including fabric, batting and photo transfer paper. Each one is unique. The limit is not one quilt per family but one quilt per child.

There are currently 72 quilt requests and 25 pillow sham requests to be filled. Volunteers can access free child care for the time they contribute to the program through the volunteer child care fund on post. No sewing or quilting experience is necessary to volunteer.

Orders for quilts and shams are completed on a first-come, first-served basis.

However, if both parents are deployed or if the individual making the request volunteers, they are moved up on the list.

Often soldiers worry that their children will not remember them when they are gone and it can make a big difference knowing that his or her face is there everyday with the child.

"Sometimes it is hard to give free stuff away. People wonder what's the catch?" Pinkerton said. "The program is out there for the kids and we just want to get the word out."

For information about Operation Kid Comfort, to make a request or volunteer contact Karol Pinkerton at kpinkerton@asymca.net or call (254) 634-5445.

Contact Rebecca Hertz at rhertz@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7475.

-By Rebecca Hertz