Youth make new friends and find ways to connect with deployed parents

MOKULEIA, Hawaii - Sitting on a Swiss army stretcher under a well-shaded ironwood tree, Shalonda Flowers, age 7, could sense the presence of her father, even though he is deployed.

He appeared to be everywhere she looked - in the nearby Waianae Mountains and in the faces of the Soldiers from the 552nd Military Police (MP) Company, who had just finished an instructional session for her and fellow campers.

"My dad drives one of those cars," said Flowers, pointing to an Army Humvee parked about 30-feet away.

Flowers, along with hundreds of other military children, are attending the weeklong Operation Purple camp at YMCA's Camp Erdman, here.

The camp, sponsored by the National Military Family Association, is held in various locations nationwide for military children with deployed parents.

For Flowers, this year's activities admittedly were helping her make a stronger connection with her deployed father, Sgt. Ernest White.

"(Camp) makes me feel like he's here with me," Flowers said. "It makes me happy."
Flowers was just one of a record number of youth who signed up for this year's camp, which ran June 14-19.

According to camp director, Roy Harriman, 233 children ages 7 to 15, from all service branches, registered for the free summer activities, doubling last year's participation.

More than 80 weeks of camp were offered this year to nearly 10,000 military children both overseas and in 37 states.

Coincidentally, 37 also applies to the number of staffers at Harriman's disposal this year, all of whom helped provide campers with a variety of activities, including swimming, archery and climbing the ever-popular Alpine tower.

And while no therapy or counseling sessions were conducted with the youth, mental heath consultants were always around to assist campers.

"Every kid here is experiencing some kind of deployment, whether mom or dad just came back, or they're about to go," Harriman said, "so these kids all have that in common. When they feel sad or they're missing home a lot, other kids know what that feels like, so they're not alone."

One of the ways campers kept their stress levels low was by maintaining their sense of humor.

For example, when Sgt. Nicholas Briggs, a dog handler with the 13th MP Detachment, asked a group of children what makes them complete their homework, Nathan Mitchell's hand quickly shot up in the air.

"Candy'" suggested the 11-year-old son of Capt. Shawn Mitchell.

Everyone, including Briggs and Mitchell, chuckled at the answer.

"Actually, it's discipline," the sergeant finally said.

With sponsorship from The Sierra Club and The Sierra Club Foundation, Operation Purple campers also learned the importance of being stewards of the aina, or land, by completing service projects during the week.

While strengthening their commitment to caring for the land, the campers forged lasting friendships with other military children, Harriman explained,

Ten-year-old Andrew Logan-Bearden was among those who wasted little time befriending a fellow camper.

"I met a kid named Gabe Funtes on the first day of camp," explained Logan-Bearden, the son of Lt. Col. Andy Bearden. "We've been best pals ever since."

As this year's camp drew to a close, 11-year-old DeMonte Bond admitted he would miss the activities and friendships forged at Camp Erdman. Still, he was absolutely giddy about the thought of returning home and seeing his father, Sgt. Leon Bond, once again.

"He's the best dad in the world," Bond said.

"Our motto is, 'Kids serve too,'" Harriman said. "They're going through stressful times in their lives, and they're making huge sacrifices by not having mom or dad here, and we want them to feel proud of what they do.

"This is a chance for them to come out, decompress and just be kids again."