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Operation Summer Camp: Children of National Guardsmen Experience Camp Tuition-Free
On a perfect summer day in July 2004, nine-year-old Ryan Mowers was practicing archery with his bunk at Camp Kweebec in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania. As he squinted down the arrow, he looked like any other fourth grader enjoying his first summer at camp. At the pool, his brother, twelve-year-old Brandyn Mowers, was just drying off. Older, and maybe a little wiser, Brandyn was quieter than the other boys in his bunk. Though he didn't talk about it, Brandyn knew that his mother was about to be deployed for combat training in the Pennsylvania Air National Guard. He didn't know how long she'd be away. But he knew that she might get sent to Iraq. And he was old enough to remember how scared he felt when his father, also an Airman, had been sent overseas after September 11, 2001.
On that same perfect day, Staff Sgt. Patti Findley of the PA Air National Guard's 111th Fighter Wing was visiting Camp Kweebec with a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer. Off-duty, Sgt. Findley was a professional photographer. On duty, in uniform, she was taking pictures for The Sandy Hog Gazette, the 111th's news bulletin, while the Inquirer reporter researched a story about "Operation Summer Camp" — a tuition-free "campership" program offered to the children of the 111th by American Camp Association (ACA)-accredited camps from ACA, Keystone Regional. With Sgt. Findley was a special surprise for the Mowers boys — their mother, Tech. Sgt. Maureen Mowers, thirty-two, who was taking advantage of the press tour to say one last goodbye to her boys. She was leaving the next day for training.
Looking up from his arrow, Ryan Mowers saw some adults walking toward him. Then he saw the camouflage uniform of Sgt. Findley, who was leading the group. When a child with a parent serving in the military sees a stranger in uniform, his heart skips a beat. Ryan's sunny face went dark, fear setting in, until — in the blink of an eye — an enormous smile lit up his face as he saw his mom and ran into her arms.
In January/February 2003, Camping Magazine featured stories about the different ways in which the organized camp community responded to help children who had lost a parent on September 11, 2001. Thoughtful and generous, these programs all helped children grieve in a safe place and get back to the business of being a child. But in the aftermath of 9/11, as America mobilized to fight terrorism, the ripples of those horrific attacks created a new group of children with unique emotional needs — the children of deployed parents; children living with the daily fear that comes with having a parent off fighting a war.
Reaching Families in Need
Stephen Taylor, director of Camp Neumann, learned about the hardships families endured when a parent was suddenly deployed from one of his camp counselors, who was also serving in the 111th Fighter Wing at the Willow Grove Air Reserve Station. As a National Guardsman, Patrick Trauger was a crew chief in the 111th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. He told Taylor about the families of the men and women he served with in the 111th — families whose lives were turned upside down when a parent's income plummeted from a good-paying job to military pay. Faced with less money to pay the bills, the spouse at home was often forced to take extra work, which then created child care problems and transportation problems and even more financial burdens. Compounding their worry for the welfare of their soldiers, families left behind coped with the stress of "holding the fort" at home.
Taylor immediately decided to provide tuition-free "camperships" to the children of the 111th Fighter Wing, but he wanted to do more. He took the idea to Bob Miner, ACA Keystone Regional president, and Michael Chauveau, executive director of ACA, Keystone Regional. Both jumped on board and agreed to help promote the idea throughout the ACA, Keystone local office. That was the easy part.
The challenge was in figuring out how to create a manageable program. Who would be eligible for the camperships? How would ACA Keystone connect camps with families in need? Trauger introduced Taylor to Nicholas Monatesti, a former airman who now serves as the family readiness coordinator for the 111th Air Wing. The Family Readiness Group (FRG) is the Air Force's one-stop family assistance services office, which is established in times of contingency call-up, mobilization, and large-scale deployment to provide support and assistance to Service members and their families. Family readiness coordinators help military families access needed services and cut through "red tape" when a parent is called to active duty for an extended period of time. Monatesti says the primary mission of any FRG is to inform and emotionally support families so the military member can perform his or her mission. On any day, his job might include providing youth development and counseling information to parents, preventing a bank from foreclosing on a military family's home while a parent is on active duty, finding child care, or helping in emergency situations.
In May 2003, Monatesti met with an ACA, Keystone committee to explain the organizational structure and protocol of the military and the role of the Family Program. The committee learned that unlike regular Army families, which are accustomed to living a military life on a base with other military families, Guard and Reserve families are often unprepared for a sudden deployment. Besides the sudden change in income and parental responsibilities, the children of guardsmen and reservists may not have any other friends who are living with the same experience of having a parent serving overseas, so it's hard for them to share their feelings with friends. Monatesti offered his services to coordinate the camp program through his office. As a model program, working with the Guard's 111th seemed a good place to start. By the end of the meeting, Operation Summer Camp was born.
For camps used to running their own programs and handling their own registrations, Operation Summer Camp posed some new problems. With the camp season opening just weeks away, quick mobilization was required. But because of the military's security regulations, initial contact with prospective families occurred only through the family readiness coordinator. ACA, Keystone Regional camps who wished to participate by offering camperships provided session availability information, brochures, and videos to Monatesti. Through mailings, e-mails, meetings, and phone calls, he disseminated the camps' offers to the families of the 111th. As parents responded, Monatesti helped them review the camp material to find the best camp match for their child.
Thanks to the generosity of the camp community, families could pick sessions from one week to eight weeks at day and overnight camps, camps with various religious orientations, camps for special interests, and camps for children with special needs. Once a family selected a camp, Monatesti helped them complete the registration information and insured that all of the necessary paperwork was provided to the camp. In 2003, the first year of the program, thirty-two children ages six to fourteen went to camp — many for the first time, but certainly not the last. In 2004, forty-five children enjoyed time at over forty ACA Keystone member camps.
Monatesti said that when a parent is called to active duty, children are often called to take on added responsibilities at home. At camp, a child can just be a child. And for the spouse left behind, Operation Summer Camp also provides a much-needed break from the logistics of daily parenting.
For everyone involved in Operation Summer Camp, the rewards were great. At Camp Neumann, which provided the most camperships in 2003 and again in 2004, Steve Taylor said that helping the military children was a natural outgrowth of the philosophy of the camp — which is operated by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese and his own lifelong commitment to helping children in need. At Camp Setebaid, which serves children with diabetes, a child who attended through Operation Summer Camp returned the following summer as a counselor. The father of a Camp Netimus camper presented the camp with an American flag he had flown over Iraq. Many children and parents wrote to Monatesti to tell him how much the program meant to them. And in a special ceremony at the Pentagon, Nick Monatesti accepted the Outstanding Family Readiness Group Award on behalf of the 111th Air Wing and its Operation Summer Camp program. Of the ninety-three Wings in the United States, the 111th was the only one to receive this prestigious award.
"For every family who participated in the program," said Monatesti, "the camps were a godsend." Tech. Sgt. Mowers added that because her husband, from whom she is divorced, goes overseas almost every time the 111th is called, her children live with constant worry — and she is worried for them. "Thankfully, there's family support," Mowers said. "It's very generous of the camps to do this. I'm glad the children have had the opportunity to experience it."
How-To's for Setting Up Military Camperships
ACA, Keystone would like to help other ACA local offices and camps replicate the Operation Summer Camp in their region. These tips should help jumpstart the process and ease it along the way:
As a national program, Operation Summer Camp has the potential to help thousands of children and their families cope with the uncertainties of an uncertain war. Camp does give kids a world of good. And through philanthropic programs like Project Heal the Children, America's Camp, Camp Haze, and Operation Summer Camp, camps also do good in the world.
Ellen F. Warren is president of Levy Warren Marketing Media, a marketing and public relations firm that provides consulting services to ACA Keystone. You can contact Ellen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-886-1666.
Originally published in the 2005 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.