HEIDELBERG, Germany -To kick off a three-part program supporting deploying Soldiers and their Families, nearly 80 youth from throughout Europe recently explored the rich history and heartbeat of this city.

Called Camp A.R.M.Y Challenge - for "Adventure, Resilience, Memories, Youth" - the program is hosted by Installation Management Command-Europe's Morale, Welfare and Recreation Child and Youth Services.

Some 200 young participants, in grades 6 through 12, are enjoying either city or island adventures, or a tall-ship sailing excursion.

An early portion of the six-day city adventure certainly lived up to its name as middle school-aged students ascertained public transportation routes, hiked hills, canoed the Neckar River (including through and around locks), made new friends and discovered what makes Heidelberg so special.

Group leader Joe Marton, CYS program specialist, kept a sharp eye but a loose hand on activities as the group - with counselors nearby but not hovering - boarded city buses and trains, eventually reaching the neighboring village of NeckargemAfA1/4nd.

"I'm not dictating how they get there; I'm going to give them our expected arrival time at our destination, and the options for how to travel," Marton said with a smile. "These are bright kids; you just need to give them the chance to figure things out."

Arriving at the canoe rental on time, the group met several German guides, received a safety briefing, donned life vests, grabbed paddles and started down the Neckar - albeit slowly for some.

For many, it was their first time in a canoe, but nervous glances at the water quickly gave way to spontaneous singing, mini-races and grins, even when rain began, as the host guides joined in as well.

"Everyone was asking me, 'Man where did you get these kids,'" Marton said. "They couldn't believe they all just met each other, and are working together so well as a team.

As children of servicemembers, "They have things in common that not every kid has," he added. "They are using those strengths to build friendships and life skills that will not only make them successful now, but in the future."

"Some of their parents are about to deploy, some are just finishing, and some have parents downrange right now" Marton noted. "Here they can come together and talk about the life skills they have learned. It's what they need to empower them to succeed."

After passing several barges, riverside campgrounds and tourist cruisers, which dwarfed smaller boats, the fleet of canoes made its way through a lock, which lowered the water level nearly 20 feet, allowing them to paddle past small generators damming the river.

The final lock - within sight of Heidelberg's scenic castle - was inaccessible, so the intrepid youth learned how to portage, carrying their boats around the lock to a sandstone ramp leading back into the water.

The castle view and the passage underneath the historic AltebrAfA1/4cke - an 18th century bridge - impressed the young travelers.

"Amazing," said Courtney, from Bamberg, who ran out of words, "coming up on the bridge, the castle was in view on the hill, and ..."

Anna, from Vilseck, was impressed with mansion-like houses lining the river. "I'm going to make some serious money and buy one," she declared.

For others, the journey itself was the thing.

"The whirlpool around the bridge was awesome," said Jair, from Vilseck, with pre-teen excitement "and before that, I saw a dead eel."

Disembarking, the students broke for lunch before starting a tour of the original center of Heidelberg, called the Altstadt, and ending at the castle, or schloss.

Meeting so many different people with unique skills and perspectives is an important part Camp A.R.M.Y Challenge, Marton said.

'This entire program is about us facilitating experiences for these kids in a safe, positive environment - to enable them to be responsible, caring, capable and ethical citizens of the world," Marton said, "and I think we met that challenge."

Editor's note: At the request of program managers, only the participants' first names were used.

(Art McQueen is a member of the USAG Heidelberg Public Affairs Office)