SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Developing key leaders and stronger family readiness groups was the focus for more than 180 New York National Guard family volunteers and military personnel here, April 15-17, 2011.

"A large part of the weekend is getting to meet other volunteers and learning from their experiences," said Sgt. First Class Frank White, military point of contact for the 501st Explosive Ordnance Detachment.

"This is the second deployment cycle I have gone through and I have seen a lot of changes and improvements in what the family programs offers and how beneficial it is to the family readiness groups," said White, whose unit is currently in Iraq.

At the 2011 New York National Guard Family and Youth Training Workshop participants received information briefings and discussed family program and readiness group roles and responsibilities, communication techniques, fund raising, event planning and identifying and using available resources.

"The weekend training was designed to help establish and facilitate ongoing communication, involvement, support and recognition between National Guard families and the National Guard in a partnership that promotes the best in both," said Andrew DePalo, the New York National Guard Family Programs director.

"This is done through education, outreach services and partnerships by leveraging resources, training and constantly capitalizing on new capabilities, concepts and technological advances," DePalo added.

Since 2007, the New York National Guard Family Programs has developed a vast network of trained volunteers working with active and reserve components, government agencies, employers, veteran and volunteer service organizations, and private businesses to support New York military servicemembers and their families.

While adult volunteers focused on helping families cope with the stresses of military life and deployments, nearly 80 children, ages 6-18, shared a weekend of leadership and team building of their own.

"The Youth program provides support and skills training in leadership, mentoring and resource coordination that reflect the unique needs of military youth," said Colleen Casey, New York National Guard Child & Youth coordinator.

"We provide safe activities and a place to meet, talk and have fun with other military youth while addressing deployment issues, such as separation anxiety, increased responsibility and reintegration when a loved one returns home from mobilization," Casey said

Leaving their parents behind, the youth boarded buses and set off for the 4-H Training Center in nearby Ballston Spa.

"The 4-H focuses on science, engineering, and technology, healthy living, and citizenship, which is a perfect fit for what we try to instill in our National Guard youth," Casey said.

The 4-H is affiliated with the Youth Program to provide resources to help dependents cope with the stress of separation during deployments.

While at the center, younger participants built bluebird houses, tied fly-fishing lures and studied insect collections as part of a natural resource lab and learned about aerodynamics while creating airplanes and helicopters out of paper and straws during an aerospace science lab. Other activities included archery, cooking and geo-caching.

"It's great to have all these kids come together, because they realize they are not alone, there are a lot of kids dealing with the same issues or circumstances, whether one parent or another is deployed or just returned," Casey said.

Teens were given classes on how to identify and protect themselves from potential dangerous practices associated with social media sites, cyber bullying and distracted driving. They were also introduced to engineering concepts. They designed and built a bionic arm using air and hydraulic pressure to create prosthetic movement and used Lego's to build a bridge.

The science curriculum was provided by Youth Extension Service, or YES, a Department of Defense program that matches up college interns with military youth.

"It was a jam-packed weekend," said Keri O'Neil, New York National Guard Child & Youth coordinator. "Seeing all the smiles on the kids faces shows we did something really special and it makes it all worthwhile."

The Youth Program offers free counseling, summer camps and support groups to help children of National Guard personnel. A youth newsletter, pen pals program and teen council help youth communicate and stay involved in issues that pertain to them.

Since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the deployment of more than 10,000 members of the New York Army and Air National Guard to combat zones, the family program has expanded to include full-time consultants in child welfare and psychology and the establishment of professionally-staffed outreach centers around the state.