By Sgt. 1st Class Mark BellJanuary 25, 2011
ORLANDO, Fla. - Take caring of the Army Reserve family has always been a priority for senior leadership, but taking that care to the next level is the focus of a new initiative for the 81st Regional Support Command, based at Fort Jackson, S.C.
As hundreds of Soldiers returning from overseas deployments make the trip each month to a Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program to learn about the tools and resources available to assist Army Reserve families, their children spend hours playing and interacting with others who spent the past year in the same situation.
Children spend the day occupied by video and board games, baby dolls, building blocks and colorful stickers, but nearly unnoticed to them is a new "friend" who rolled up her sleeves to be temporarily tattooed to show her support.
For the past several months, the "Wildcat" YRRP workshop team has placed military family life consultants within the childcare services to assist the youngest members of the Army Reserve family with the separation of their families, said Christa Burns, 81st RSC family programs director.
"We want to make sure our littlest ones through our teenagers have the resources available to them in case they want to talk to someone about how they feel about their mom or dad deploying," she said. "We are truly concerned about the entire family, not just the Soldier and spouse."
Burns said the consultants spend the day playing games and interacting with the children.
"We want them to go unnoticed - a new friend of sorts," she said. "They are trained professionals who deal with these types of situations every day. They know when someone is reaching out for help."
As their parents are learning about financial and marital success, children are learning from each other and sharing stories about the past year.
"What's most important during these events is that the children leave here knowing that they were not forgotten or disregarded," said Chap. (Lt. Col.) Richard Savage, the 81st RSC deputy command chaplain.
Savage said children have the same concerns and issues their parents have during a deployment, but can potentially lack an understanding of the situation.
"We are here to help answer those difficult questions or be that bridge between the child and parent," he said. "Our youngest members are our future leaders and we have to make sure we take care of them and guide them to make the right decisions and ask the difficult questions."
At a recent workshop, a teenager blamed her father for missing her prom and other life events during the past year. During a brief encounter with a family life specialist, the girl was able to positively express her feelings to her father.
"After the weekend is over, we hope we were able to impact lives, young and old, in a positive way," said Burns. "The bottom line is we are here for the entire family and we will try our best to provide the best resources to help them get back on the right track after the deployment."
Right before heading to lunch, four-year-old Maya Williams ran up to her mother's arm to show her a decorative bracelet she made earlier in the day and said, "Mom, look at the pretty bracelet."
After a few minutes of carefully examining the craftsmanship of her daughter's new found skills, a quick hug and kiss on the forehead was a visible sign of approval and admiration.
"This is what it is all about," Williams said while looking at her daughter's smile. "If every child walked away with this happy attitude, who wouldn't want to be a part of something this big' The people here are amazing, and they work so hard to make these children feel welcomed and comfortable."
The tiny bracelet may seem insignificant to some, but to the Williams' family it is a token of a weekend of learning and bonding with other Army Reserve families learning how to make positive changes in their lives.
As each month comes and goes, new Soldiers and families will attend the workshops, and Burns said she hopes the childcare program gets better each time.
"It's not just about watching the young children while their parents are attending the conference," she said. "This is a learning experience for them as well. We want them to walk away knowing that someone was there to listen to them and help them understand we care about our tiniest members of the Army Reserve."