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Operation Military Kids overnight camps allow for development, growth and overcoming hardships.
MANHATTAN, Kan. – Cutouts of foam hands in nearly every color and size displayed hand-written words such as laughter, love, positivity and sacrifice. The hands, joined together, created a tree-like piece of art that 18 people from three military families used to define their resilience and how they have been able to the overcome challenges together.
Art was one of the many hands-on activities for participants of the Kansas Operation Military Kids (OMK) “Purple on the Prairie” family camp, hosted Aug. 17-18 at the Rock Springs 4-H Center, south of Junction City. The camp was part of the OMK effort, formed as a national support system to help military families and made possible by grants from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Elaine Johannes is the Kansas OMK director, as well as associate professor and extension specialist in youth development for the School of Family Studies and Human Services at Kansas State University. She said K-State Research and Extension has competed well for funding to be able to evolve the OMK program in Kansas for the past 10 years.
“In that 10 years, we created really strong supports and partnerships with the National Guard, both Army and Air, with our (extension) installations, and with our civilian organizations like the American Red Cross, American Legion, and Boys and Girls Clubs,” Johannes said.
With an added research component, which allows for interviewing and feedback from OMK activity participants, Johannes said the program has become a “beautiful story” of researchers and extension professionals working together to help military families identify their struggles, become stronger individuals, help one another and build resilience.
Some of the OMK grants Kansas receives allow 4-H clubs and extension agents throughout the state to work locally with families at McConnell Air Force base, Fort Leavenworth and Fort Riley. Although OMK day camps have occurred in the past, the family camp was the first OMK overnight camp organized in Kansas. Johannes said from the prior day camps and talking with parents and their children, she knew a more intimate all-girls teen camp was needed. The “Express Yourself” all-girls camp for military-connected girls ages 11-17, will take place Oct. 12-13 at Rock Springs.
“The ‘Express Yourself’ camp was first designated as a teen camp in early August,” said Jackie Cox, OMK camp coordinator. “That camp wasn’t able to happen due to not much participation. Specifically, we’re targeting middle school girls, their moms, mentors, as well as their sisters.”
The focus of the all-girls camp, Johannes said, is to create an opportunity to build communication between teens and their families and allow them to reflect on their resilience. This is done through projects, similar to 4-H projects, in photography, arts, health, physical activity, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM—a current emphasized educational area in the United States.
Johannes said the stories young people have shared through interviews at past OMK and Kansas National Guard events about their real-life experiences—having a deployed parent, having a parent not do well at home when the other parent is gone, taking on the role of the parent at a young age, facing bullying in school, witnessing struggles between their parents and in some cases, divorce—have reinforced to her the need to provide a place, like the camps, to have fun and talk about feelings.
Despite challenges that many military children face, Johannes said there are also positive things, such as traveling and seeing new places. She said knowing nearly 48 percent of young people who are from military families aspire to work in the military themselves, generates the need to teach young women how to build self-confidence and navigate through the challenges.
Four K-State undergraduate student volunteers, three girls and one boy, served as counselors at the family camp. The girls will be back to help out with the all-girls teen camp. Cox said the counselors were screened and participated in military orientation training. They have been trained to use the hand-on activities to focus on resilience.
“Not only did the families benefit from participating in the camp, the staff themselves were able to take away a clear understanding of what military families go through, how they can be resilient through the experiences they endure, as well as what makes them strong,” Cox said.
Cox is hoping for 10 to 15 families to be represented at the “Express Yourself” camp. There is a limit of 30 campers to attend.
“Our counselor-to-camper ratio is really low, and that’s important,” Johannes said. “So the counselors are actually engaged and doing the same kind of project-based learning.”
One of the counselors at the family camp, Josh Owen, is a senior airman in the Kansas National Guard with the 134th air control squadron at the McConnell air base. He is also an education major at K-State.
“As an education major and guardsman, I have had a lot of contact with military families, so Operation Military Kids seemed like a natural fit,” Owen said. “Being the son of an Army sergeant and an airman myself, I can relate to many of the issues they go through in deployments and everyday life.”
Most of Owen’s past interactions with fellow service members, he said, have been in professional settings, so the chance to take part in the family camp and see military families relax and enjoy time with their loved ones was a breath of fresh air.
“I was able to relate with the fathers on their deployment experiences, and the kids thought it was cool that I was both a service member and college student,” he said.
Because the next OMK camp is focused on girls, Owen won’t be attending as a counselor. He said he looks forward to working with other future OMK camps and using what he’s learned to help military children in his role as a teacher one day.
For more information about Kansas OMK, visit Kansas Operation Military Kids (OMK).