By Elaine WilsonMay 22, 2008
FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas -- A handful of teens sit around in a circle threading beads to make bracelets as Big Kenny Alphin, from country duo Big & Rich, breaks out in song. He sings with passion as he threads a bracelet, hoping to spread a message of encouragement to the teens.
The 16- and 17-year-olds are all children of wounded or deployed servicemembers. They gave up a sunny Saturday to spend the day at the middle school and share their experiences, and pain, at Camp C.O.P.E.
Camp C.O.P.E., which stands for Courage, Optimism, Patience and Encouragement, is a day of activities and support groups designed to help youth better cope with the effects of war, deployments, and the sacrifices they are asked to make on a daily basis. More than 70 children and teens from Fort Sam Houston and the local area participated in the camp, which was held at the Robert G. Cole Middle School here.
Big pauses from his singing, and beading, to talk to the kids with the same passion he brought to his music. "Whenever you see someone you love hurting, breathe in," he said, raising his arms overhead, "then breathe out. Let it all out. Cast as much good and positiveness you can into the situation.
"No one can imagine the stuff you've gone through, but you're an inspiration," he said.
The camp's founders, Elizabeth Reep and Sarah Balint, from Dallas, listen to Big nearby. They too feel children of servicemembers are inspiring.
The founders started the camp in 2006 to reach out to children of wounded servicemembers. Reep had first-hand experience since her husband was wounded in Iraq in 2003. After her stepsons started acting out, Reep realized that other children were probably suffering too.
"Our boys reacted just like most children of deployed or injured Soldiers do," she said. "I realized that there were probably hundreds of thousands of children going through the same ordeal and needed help coping with these emotions and fears."
Wanting to help, Reep partnered with Balint, and they set up their first camps at the Road to Recovery Conference and Tribute in Orlando in 2006 and 2007 to care for children of injured servicemembers while their parents attended the conference.
With an overwhelmingly positive response, they decided to expand the curriculum to include children of deployed troops, and to take their camp on the road.
Around that time, they received a letter from Melanie Morgan, a Fort Sam Houston Elementary School teacher whose husband had been wounded in combat. Morgan connected the founders with the Fort Sam Houston Military Child Education Coalition, comprising installation and Fort Sam Houston Independent School District leaders.
They worked together to bring the camp to Fort Sam Houston, which was a perfect fit with a large population of wounded and deployed warriors in the area.
"Fort Sam Houston has been more than accommodating," Balint said. "We're very pleased with the support and the interest."
Counselors, administrators, custodial staff and food service workers from FSHISD and outlying areas donated their time to help Camp C.O.P.E. Two of those volunteers, school counselor Linda Reed and Jessica Crafton, assistant principal at the Fort Sam Houston Elementary School, were working in a nearby building with the 7 and 8-year-olds.
For their learning activity, Reed covered a flower pot with a towel and then smashed it with a hammer. The pot represented a Family broken apart by war or injuries. The children were given a fragment and asked to write a sad word on the inside and a happy word on the outside.
"My word is sad," said 8-year-old Candace Reyes. Another girl chose the word anger.
The counselors then glued the pot back together to represent the resiliency and strength of military Families.
Dr. Gail Siller, FSHISD superintendent, said she sees that strength exhibited on a daily basis. "We feel very strongly that our kids are resilient, but we want to do everything we can to support their efforts."
A day packed with activities and group talk ended with a visit from a childhood favorite and Sesame Street star - Elmo. The younger children and the young at heart gathered around the red monster, who helped end a day of learning and emotion with laughter.
J.R. Martinez, a wounded warrior and a spokesman for the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes, also drew a crowd. The personable 24-year-old with a ready smile spent the day with a teen group sharing his experiences. In April 2003, Martinez suffered severe burns to more than 40 percent of his body when the Humvee he was driving hit a landmine in Iraq. He underwent 32 surgeries and spent nearly three years recovering at Brooke Army Medical Center.
"I can relate to what they're going through and pass on the lessons that I've learned," said Martinez of his day with the teens. "The camp is great. Taking small steps like this one to take care of military Families will help us get to the huge leaps later."
Balint said she simply hopes the participants walk away "knowing that they are not alone."
One of the teens, senior Kaleigh Oswald from Robert G. Cole High School here, has a father deployed to Afghanistan and a brother to Iraq. Her school counselor, Julie Coffey, encouraged her to come to the camp to talk about her experiences.
"It helps to talk to others," Oswald said. "We're all bonding really well; we can relate to each other."
"It's good to know there are other people nearby I can talk to," said Oswald, who plans to keep in touch with some of her new friends from the camp. "It's better to talk than to bottle it up inside."
(Elaine Wilson works for the Fort Sam Houston Public Information Office)