By Ken WhiteNovember 3, 2008
Langeoog, Germany - For an Army brat in 2008, a stable and cohesive family life can be a rare luxury, especially if you consider the effects of extended and often repeated deployments of one or even both parents.
And though nothing can ever replace the void left when a parent deploys, that hasn't deterred Installation Management Command-Europe's Morale Welfare and Recreation from trying.
In the most unlikely of places - the remote North Sea island of Langeoog - 78 6th to 8th graders found a family they never knew existed and discovered a treasure trove of life lessons and friendships that will last them a lifetime during Camp A.R.M.Y. (Adventure, Resilience, Memories, Youth) Challenge's seven-day Island.
Part traditional summer resident camp, part experiential adventure immersion and part eco-awareness-based program, the second-year camp gave kids a rare opportunity to experience all the benefits of an extended family, with a healthy dose of adventure and education to boot.
"The way we design Camp A.R.M.Y. Challenge is all about youth empowerment," said program director Joe Marton of IMCOM-Europe Child and Youth Services. "We've based this camp on what kids themselves want, and it's our responsibility to come up with what's legal, affordable, generates participation and is developmentally appropriate."
"This year we've added two days and heightened the technology and environmental-consciousness aspects of the program," Marton explained. "Through hands-on work with solar and wind energy projects, they see with their own eyes that energy doesn't necessarily have to come from a traditional petroleum-based energy generating system.
"We also bring home to the kids the very real impact of man on the natural environment by including a service project to clean the beach of man-made trash."
Langeoog, a six-mile-long island of pristine beaches that lies off the northwestern coast of Germany, is a walk back in time. Only reachable by ferry, the island hosts no motor vehicles, only 2,200 year-round residents and a colony of seals who bask in a hidden paradise that few Americans ever visit. It's a perfect venue for kids to enjoy and learn at the same time.
"What we're trying to do is also build life skills that will be useful now and throughout their lives," Marton said.
"These kids are having to look out for themselves, take full responsibility for their own decisions and learn to be effective, not only as individuals but also as a group," he pointed out. "We offer a safe place where we can facilitate and mentor them so they can practice those social skills, and they can be effective when they confront these same situations in the big, wide world."
Camp participants are not catered to. They prepare lunch daily for themselves, assist in setting up for and clearing meals, and help kitchen staff with cleanup. They live in close quarters furnished with bunks and are charged with the responsibility of caring for their gear and other members of their group.
The unpredictable North Sea weather - which alternates between raging rain storms and bright sun punctuated by blistering winds - meant the campers had to learn how and what to pack to stay warm and dry, a valuable life lesson of its own.
"These kids are learning how to operate in this environment out of necessity, because once you're out here, riding your bike without your rain gear, there's no opportunity to go back and change," Marton quipped. "It takes responsibility, looking out for each other, and planning ahead, and those lessons sink in quickly."
Between expert-guided charter boat tours and walking treks on the island's beaches, mud flats and surrounding waters, the campers were introduced to plant and animal habitats, discussing everything from the effect of tides to the chemistry of mud. The black, tarlike island mud, used in pricey skin treatments at local wellness centers, has another far less scientific attraction.
"We have a couple of kids that returned from last year's camp; the first thing they asked is, 'are we going to do the mud''" said Marton. "I think it's so popular because they're away from home and it's a license to get dirty ... not only for the kids but the adults."
The camp is a study in perpetual motion that demands a symphony of behind-the-scenes logistical and programming coordination to move, lodge and feed campers to make the experience something they will always remember.
The task of moving kids to the camp from garrisons all across Europe involved buses, trains, bicycles, ferries and even horse-drawn carriages, a successful endeavor that Marton explained is due to Army children always responding to challenges with a proactive, enthusiastic and positive attitude.
In truth, detailed planning for the camp began in earnest with risk assessments more than a year ago to ensure IMCOM-Europe provided the safest, most positive environment for participants.
"Some people might think that taking 78 kids out to a desolate island with no motor vehicles is a crazy idea," noted Marton. "But this is paradise for a kid with limitless room to enjoy, and when you're here you quickly realize that it's a safer environment than many of the more traditional youth programs you might encounter elsewhere."
The camp included a fitness regimen called "Up with the Sun" to give participants a sense of the physical training their deployed Soldier parent experiences. Activities at 6:30 a.m. ranged from beachcombing to team sports, and reinforced the fundamental value of fitness as a key component of a healthy lifestyle. The group used a colossal fleet of rental bicycles to carry it from its base in an island youth hostel to the various programming locations on the island, an added fitness tool.
"The only way to get around on this island is on bike, on foot or on the hoof. And the added benefit is they're also learning that riding a bike is a great means of practical transportation," said Marton, a point echoed by the kids themselves.
"In Wiesbaden everything's within walking distance," related camper Aja Brown. "The biggest benefit for me is that I'm actually getting in pretty good shape because we're biking everywhere - about 20 kilometers (12 miles) a day."
Friend Leke'dra Leath, also from Wiesbaden, Germany, learned an additional fitness lesson, saying "it's pretty cool because we get to go everywhere. But the bikes are kind of hard to ride; I'm kind of sore in the morning."
A 20-person cadre of college and post-college-age counselors, provided as part of an Army contract with the University of Northern Iowa, formed the backbone of the staff. Having completed a rigorous training package just to be a part of the program, these counselors were on call 24 hours a day throughout the week.
Camp coordinator Justin Grayson, a 2003 Florida A&M grad and eight-year veteran of military camps spanning the globe from Sardinia to Japan to the States, is quick to note what made this particular camp special among the many he has overseen.
"This is a unique group, in particular because these kids' parents are in the danger zone, and you see a lot more smiles at the end from kids who weren't smiling when they got here," he said. "They come in very hesitant, with their guard up, and very quickly they get extremely excited and happy ... that's what I love to see."
Grayson was quick to discuss what motivates him and keeps him working in these camps.
"I simply can't stay away," said the one-time interning producer for Peter Jennings on ABC World News Tonight. "I see a lot of similarities with kids in the States as far as the challenges go, but this is the most rewarding job I've ever had. When I'm sitting at home in my cubicle working, I'm always thinking about how I'd rather be out here with a bunch of kids."
Fellow counselors are quick to recognize what distinguishes the Army kids from others they have been involved with.
"They love to compliment us and they are truly amazing kids," exclaimed first-year counselor Erin Warnecke. "This is my first time outside of the States and what jumps out at me immediately about these kids is how well they listen to me, and how very well behaved they are. I always get the 'Yes, ma'am,' and I've never experienced that before."
The quick-win for the staff is watching kids - strangers before arriving here - come together and gel as a team so quickly.
"The phenomenal thing that you see is an immediate bonding where they're sharing and supporting one another with enthusiasm and excitement," said Marton.
"I can't help but look at them and wonder why does it take adults so long to learn how to work together as a team, and I realize we adults can learn something from these kids," he added.
And if the comments of kids are any indication, the camp has indeed exceeded its goals.
"Where I come from a lot of kids don't get a lot of chances in life to do this kind of thing," said Armando Saldana from Vilseck, Germany. "This is my first time ever being to a beach or being on a boat at sea. It's really opened my eyes to new things that I can take with me and put to use at home or anywhere else I go."
For Tina Delgado, of Mannheim, Germany, who's farther away from her mom than she's ever been, her enjoyment is also clear. "The counselors are really cool and I love the bike riding because I feel like nothing can bother me ... and I can't wait to get in the mud tomorrow!" she said.
Leon Terry, from Brussels, Belgium, was quick to caveat his endorsement of the camp as "totally cool" with his utter disappointment at not being able to stay up past the 10 p.m. curfew, while Wiesbaden's Leath revealed her favorite thing as being able to stay up all night just talking with her new friends.
One thing is evident: Europe's deployed Soldiers won't be the only ones telling "war stories" when they are reunited with their families - their children will have a few of their own.
"At first when mom signed me up for it, I was thinking, 'oh great, she's sending me to boot camp,'" laughed Brown. "I didn't actually find out where we were going until five minutes before we got on the bus, but a counselor told me we were going to an island, and I thought, 'wow, this might actually be a fun vacation after all.'"