JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- Family members enrolled in the Exceptional Family Member Program experience a multitude of obstacles in life, not the least being the daily challenge of simply fitting in. But for one weekend, Families took a break, relaxed and let down their guards in a fun, safe setting.

The fourth annual EFMP Camp was held at the Northwest Adventure Center on Joint Base Lewis-McChord Lewis North Aug. 19 to 21.

Everyone enrolled in EFMP was invited along with his or her Family members. Approximately 70 Families registered for the event, with a total of 297 Family members participating.

The purpose of the camp was to bring EFMP Families together to meet others in a worry-free setting, recreating while enjoying the best of nature in a relaxed setting. It was also a chance for EFMP to share information some Families might not know exists, like available support groups and upcoming events on and off the installation.

"It's good for the Families -- as a unit -- to be able to relax and get together in an environment where they feel comfortable with others," said Jackie Kelly, EFMP social services assistant and camp coordinator.

Cabins were reserved the first two nights for members of the first 12 Families who registered. Overnight campers were treated to a pizza party, karaoke, coloring activities and a showing of "Finding Nemo."

The second day of camp was open to all registered Families and featured an array of activities including nature hikes, bingo, arts and crafts, fishing, pontoon boat rides, kayak rentals, face painting and an enormous inflatable slide.

Dozens of Soldiers from 23rd Chemical Battalion manned the activities and volunteered in every capacity. It was the battalion's third year partnering with EFMP to bring the camp to life, and despite having just returned from a weeklong field training exercise the day before, Soldiers showed no lack of energy or enthusiasm.

"Nobody was forced to be here," said 2nd Lt. Amanda White, platoon leader with 23rd Chem.l Bn. "They all chose to spend time here giving back to each of the Families and let them know how important they are to our community."

Lieutenant Colonel Sean Kirschner, 23rd Chem. Bn. commander, spent time assisting Families on the fishing dock where hundreds of trout swam in a loose net, ready to be caught. The camp was just as enjoyable for him and his troops as it was for many of the Families.

"You see these kids when they catch a fish and their eyes light up ... it's just such a sense of personal satisfaction," Kirschner said. "You're so happy for them that this gives them joy."

EFMP is a mandatory Army program for servicemembers and their Families who have any sort of educational or medical needs, Kelly said. JBLM has approximately 3,000 servicemembers with exceptional Family members, meaning there are likely more than 4,000 Family members with exceptional needs since many have more than one Family member who qualifies.

"It can be anything from asthma to cerebral palsy, and on the education side, if anybody has an (individualized education program) or has an sort of learning delays, they are eligible for the program as well," Kelly said.

For 1st Lt. Antonio Terlaje and his wife, Rose, having a son with autism spectrum disorder is challenging enough without the added stress of taking their Family to public places like restaurants, playgrounds and other places 3-year-old Tonio could potentially have a meltdown. While they push through and refuse to deny their son the most normal conditions possible, the couple said it was nice to have a weekend set aside for Families like theirs.

"They're just enjoying every minute of it and having as much fun as possible," Rose said of Tonio and his brother, 5-year-old Xavier. "It's actually a big help to know we're not the only ones going through stuff."

"It lets them know that there are other people who have walked a mile in their shoes and know what they're going through," Kelly said.

Lodging, food, meals and entertainment were provided free to Families.

Laura M. Levering: