FORT CAMPBELL, Ky., July 29, 2011--When you engage in a work that taps your talent and fuels your passion " that rises out of a great need in the world that you feel drawn by conscience to meet " therein lies your voice, your calling, your soul’s code. " Stephen Covey

Last weekend, Fort Campbell’s Taylor Youth Center was a hive of activity. Children and adults bustled through hallways with cameras. In certain rooms, people could be seen collaborating at crowded tables, heads together and pens in hand. In others, groups congregated at the feet of acoustic guitarists.

Each room contained a different learning module for “A Backpack Journalist,” a hands-on learning experience which teaches the art of self-expression via journalism education and applied technology.

The name of the program, Dennis explained, has a double meaning.

“In today’s public affairs world, everything a person needs to cover events, such as cameras and smartphones, can fit inside a backpack,” said Linda Dennis, creator and program manager. “On the underside, the term refers to the stresses of life. As adults, we carry a lot of those stresses around on our backs.”

“The modules help young people find their voice and build resiliency through creative expression,” said Dennis. “They learn to get in touch with themselves, using writing, cowboy poetry, photography and songwriting.”

Most important, the program is designed specifically for military children, ages 12-18, to aid them with the daily struggles that accompany deployment and reintegration.

Stacy Sharp was a child of the military lifestyle, a fact which endeared her to the program. For the past year, she’s been a backpack journalism writing intern, helping military teens voice their feelings by putting pen to paper.

“Writing is, in my opinion, the most emotional part of what we do,” said Sharp. “As a military kid, there are things going on in your life that all teenagers are going through. But there are issues that not every other teenager is dealing with.”

Sharp explained that, in addition to the normal pressures of the teenage years, military children are forced to deal with the added pressure of living up to a standard of resilience the world places on them.

“You’re taught to be strong and keep it together,” said Sharp. “You don’t always get the chance to vent about what you’re going through, and that’s why we’re here. We want them to have a place to share and talk about their lives.”

Backpack journalism is not just about feelings and problems, however. Participants are allowed access to learning tools such as digital SLR cameras and iPads. They work together to create songs which are recorded and edited. Self-expression comes through learning skills that are both entertaining and relevant.

In an article about the program, Dr. Frederic J. Medway of the University of South Carolina explained the effectiveness of the program in terms of therapy:

“They can express at a deeper level using media that go beyond just words; they can honor through their works their Family heroes, and they can connect with others who, like them, are trying to make sense out of a situation that perhaps few others in their schools and neighborhoods share.”

The common bonds offer the potential for newly forged friendships, as 13-year-old Molly Maine soon discovered. When she arrived for the three-day program, she met 15-year-old Stephanie Mellar.

“I’ve been hanging out with Stephanie the entire time,” said Maine. “It’s nice to make friends with people who are into the same stuff that you’re into.”

One of the things the girls quickly discovered was a mutual fondness for cowboy poetry, a completely new experience for both.

“I was confused about cowboy poetry at first,” said Mellar, “but I learned that it’s actually very interesting. We had a lot of fun.”

“Cowboy poetry preserves the culture and the history of the development of our nation,” said Jerry Warren, instructor for the cowboy poetry module of the program.

When cowboys went west and developed the land, they would often sit at the campfire and tell stories of native lands or the day’s events.

“They discovered that if they made the stories rhyme or set them to music, they’d get asked to share them a lot more,” said Warren.

Modernizing this trend has created a quirky and fun way for participants to share memories, tell of personal events and get to know one another.

“These kids are going to leave here as friends because they all know each other now,” said Warren.

Various cowboy poems, songs, photo projects and stories were presented during a final showcase for the Families on Sunday.

“We want them to tell their own stories and tell us how they really feel,” said Dennis. “It opens up the communication between parent and child.”

With the success of the program at Fort Campbell, Dennis anticipates the program’s return.

For more information about “A Backpack Journalist,” visit