By Michael NorrisMay 3, 2012
The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, an organization that provides support to the Families of fallen servicemembers, is looking for active duty military and recent veterans in the Washington, D.C., area to volunteer as mentors to children and teens in the TAPS National Good Grief Camp over Memorial Day weekend, May 25-27. The idea is to match up youths who lost a servicemember parent to military service with mentors who help provide one-on-one emotional support in a series of grief-reducing exercises and recreational activities through the weekend.
Each mentor will be matched with one child who has lost a loved one who was a military servicemember. The children range from 4 to 19 years old and mentors may select the age group with which they feel most comfortable working. Mentor and mentee will then be placed in groups of 25 or so other pairs. This group will be led by an experienced and trained grief facilitator who will help group members in exercises and discussions. Mentors only responsibilities for the weekend are to connect with the child they are assigned and follow the lead of the group facilitator.
Ami Neiberger-Miller, TAPS public affairs officer, said children participating in the program come from across the United States and that the Fisher House Foundation was donating airline miles to help defray youths's expenses.
She described grief work as "exercises to get children to open up and express themselves" about the loss they've suffered.
For instance, mentors help children make life-size portraits of themselves. The results can be touching, Neiberger-Miller said, explaining how one child drew himself with enlarged feet, which symbolized the weight he felt from losing a parent. Another painted himself yellow to convey how sick he felt, while still another made her skin spotted to show how alone she felt.
Another exercise has children write letters to the thing they hold responsible for their missing mother or father, which they destroy after composing. Similarly, children then write heartfelt letters to the missing parent, which they later tie to balloons and let go to help elicit an emotional release.
"Children tend to bottle up their feelings because they don't want to upset the other members of the Family," Neiberger-Miller said. "Parents tell us that when children get home [from camp] they start 'journaling' to capture their feelings. They continue to open up in a positive way."
Sgt. 1st Class Don Francisco of The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, has been a mentor with the Good Grief Camp for four years. He said he got involved with TAPS after serving as a casualty notification officer and wanted "to see the other side of the coin."
"I love working with children," he said, explaining that each year's camp is like a Family reunion because of the returning participants. "You form a bond with the child," he added, explaining how he keeps in touch with one child he met at the camp on Facebook.
"I'm happy to be doing something useful on Memorial Day," said Master Sgt. Richard Rolls of the Fife and Drum Corps, who has mentored for eight years. "It's important for the kids to get together with each other. They help console each other. It gives them the opportunity to see that they're not unique … for having suffered a devastating loss."
He related the touching story of two 7 year olds who got to know each other after attending the camp for several years. One related how his father died after his tank overturned and slid off an embankment into some water. "He concluded the story by saying, "I'm really sorry my dad died, but if he hadn't, we wouldn't have met," Rolls said.
"I don't look at it as a duty but a privilege, said Staff Sgt. Dustin Jeffcoat, who has mentored at the camp the past two years. "You may give up a few hours of your personal time, but if you do it will be a life-changing experience. It's one of the most rewarding things I've ever done."
According to the schedule, May 25 is slated to be spent at the Marriott Crystal Gateway hotel in Crystal City, Va., with everyone getting to know each other and engaging in grief work with the kids. On May 26 the group will take a field trip around the National Mall, visit military memorials and engage in more grief work. May 27 continues the grief work before camp wraps up. Transportation is provided for participants during the duration of the camp.
Mentors must be available all day Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Monday, May 28, is an optional day, but mentors are encouraged to participate. This is the 18th year of the Good Grief Camp and so far approximately 500 children have signed up this year.
Mentors are still sought and those interested need to register by May 7. For more information or to register as a mentor, go to http://www.taps.org/national.aspx?id=6408 and click "event registration." Questions or assistance with a letter requesting time off should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org or call by calling 1-800-959-TAPS (8277).