Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Bearhugs for Soldiers' Children ; Groups Try to Ease the Burden of a Parent's Deployment with Counseling and Networking - as Well as Books and Bears

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Bearhugs for Soldiers' Children ; Groups Try to Ease the Burden of a Parent's Deployment with Counseling and Networking - as Well as Books and Bears

Article excerpt

Caryn Finn-Reilly's children have just finished dinner, and they're pestering her for one more piece of candy before they settle down to read. On the surface, it's a typical evening routine, but for this family, it's a new normal to be a group of three, not four. In August, Sgt. 1st Class Dan Reilly mobilized with his Army National Guard unit for training and deployment to Kosovo. He's due back in December 2007.

They've set up a webcam, so Dan will occasionally be able to talk face to face with Caryn, Andrew, 5, and Lorraine, nearly 7. But when the kids need to feel connected to Dad, they can also turn to something decidedly low-tech: their bears.

Andrew shuffles to his bedroom to fetch a teddy bear with an American-flag patch on its shoulder. He squeezes it tight as his mom explains: "This bear has special powers. [Every kid in the unit gets one] and when the kids hug the bear, the daddies, wherever they are, can feel the hug." Distributed by the Guard before deployment so soldiers can give them to their kids, the bears come in handy when Caryn is nearing the end of her rope after a full day of work in desktop publishing. "I'm always saying, 'Where's the bear? Go get the bear!' " she exclaims with a laugh.

The bears, donated in this case by a local Rotary club, are also a symbol of how a community can spring into action to support "suddenly military" children. Roughly half a million K-12 students in the United States have parents in the National Guard and Reserve, and they've been facing more deployments in recent years. But because many of these children don't live near military bases, each town and school with even one or two of them has a lot to learn about how best to help families cope.

Some signs of empathy are visible: classroom letter-writing campaigns to a parent's unit; volunteers staffing a day of activities so military kids across a region can meet one another. But people working closely with these families don't always know what resources are available to address deeper issues such as a child's or spouse's mental health needs.

"Schools are probably the first line of defense for noticing anything that might be an issue," says Jennifer Cesaitis, coordinator of the Massachusetts National Guard Youth Program. "If we can identify it soon enough, then we won't end up in a situation - and this has happened - where a student is curled up in a ball underneath his desk and the teacher doesn't have any idea why." The better the flow of information between the military, the schools, and the parents or guardians, the stronger the safety net for the child.

Creating that safety net was the focus of a free two-day seminar in Massachusetts last month, where teachers and youth counselors learned the various ways children of different ages tend to respond to the deployment and reunion cycle. For younger children, negative effects can range from sleeplessness to complaints of illness, while teens might act out more or become withdrawn, Ms. Cesaitis says. But it's also important to give children opportunities to see the plus side: Families can show their resilience during a deployment, becoming closer and more flexible.

"As educators, as community members, and as parents ... we must talk in a way that children hear the language of courage.... These children are also serving," says Mary Keller, executive director of the Military Child Education Coalition, a national nonprofit group that provided the recent training here. She suggests telling a child, for instance, "You're experiencing a lot in your life, and you're staying the course, and we're proud of you."

The Massachusetts National Guard places a youth service medal around the neck of every child who has a parent sent off on a mission, Cesaitis says. The Army has distributed Operation Military Kids grants to teams of military and civilian youth workers in 34 states, to sponsor activities such as the educational seminar here. …

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