Operation Purple Camp

By Bailey Bernius

This fall, millions of American children returned to school after a carefree summer break with family. Each year, the National Military Family Association sends children separated from their deployed parents to camp for a different type of break--one from the worries of war. These fun-filled Operation Purple Camps are meant to help the kids through a stressful time and honor their sacrifice.

The association created the program in 2004 in response to parents’ requests to “help us help our kids.” The program began with 12 camps serving 1,000 military kids, and has grown to 68 camp locations nationwide in summer 2010. By the end of the summer, the association estimated that it sent 40,000 deserving military kids to a free week of camp.

The theme of the camp--“Kids Serve Too!”--is an opportunity to recognize kids for their service, to honor their service-member parent, and for them to be proud of themselves and their peers. Military children often take on extra responsibilities at home when a parent is deployed, and camp provides a memorable week of fun for our nation’s youngest heroes. It also gives kids the chance to meet other military children going through the same experiences. Nearly 85 percent of military youth do not attend Department of Defense schools, and only about 35 percent of active-duty military families actually live in military housing. Many Operation Purple campers have never met other military children, which makes their camp experience special.

Core Values And Curriculum
The camp has a unique curriculum that host camps are required to integrate into their regular programming. The structure of the program allows each facility that hosts a week of the camp to highlight their strengths and popular activities while focusing on the specific needs of military children.

Deb Waz, Director of Programs at Crow's Neck Environmental Education & Conference Center in Mississippi, which has held five weeks of Operation Purple Camp over the last three years, found it easy to integrate the curriculum:

“[It] is a seamless fit with our outdoor and environmental education program curriculum. In fact, there are many items in the curriculum that we've been doing for years,” she says.

“For almost every element in the … curriculum, we had a program or activity in place that could be easily adapted to fit the unique needs of the … program. [It] makes it easy because there is no trouble defining the unique characteristics of the audience--they're all military kids!

The required components of the camp focus on ideas like pride, communication, stewardship and environmental education. A Wall of Honor activity allows campers to proudly display their parent’s photo. Nightly journaling or letter-writing builds communication skills, and a community-service project teaches campers stewardship of their community.

Family Atmosphere
However, Waz noticed several differences in the campers during the season:

“It can be hard to put a finger on exactly what that difference is, but the air is different. With their shared personal experiences, campers bond with each other faster,” she says. “They also bond with our counselors faster and stronger.”

She adds: “Campers seem to really get into the family atmosphere we strive hard to create. By the middle of the week, you can see older campers helping younger ones clear lunch trays, tie shoes, and find water bottles. You can also see them hanging out and playing together. Our oldest group of boys helped teach our youngest to canoe, and then spent over an hour ‘throwing’ the younger ones across the top of the water in the swimming area. You could hear the ‘me next’ screeches for miles! We don't typically see the oldest ones choosing to pay so much attention to the little ones.”

“Campers are extremely respectful and helpful in other ways, too,” she notes. “There's no shortage of volunteers to wipe lunch tables, sweep, and put away toys--even though we never ask for such volunteers. They seem to be much more aware of these sorts of things. I'm sure this is a result of their experiences with deployment. They've had to help Mom or Dad at home with other siblings, so when they make a mess, they realize someone has to clean it up! I don't think the average 9-year-old thinks about that. Operation Purple campers are--in some ways--mature beyond their years.”

Look Around
Camp directors, staff and counselors don’t need to host a camp to make a difference in the lives of these kids--there are other roles we can play to support military families. Though children of service members are part of the unique military culture, they spend most of their time in your community. There are more than 700,000 National Guard and Reserve children who might never live on a military installation. These families not only rely on the military network, but look within their local community for support. But to reach military youth, we have to know who they are and understand them. Encourage staff members and volunteers to seek out the military families or children in regular weeks of camp, and recognize the challenges they might be facing. For ways that caring adults in military kids’ lives can better understand those challenges, download the association’s toolkit at www.militaryfamily.org/toolkits.

Waz and her staff members learned lessons from the camp that they apply throughout the summer:

“The lessons we learn … reach beyond our programs for military kids. The program serves as a poignant reminder that there are other kids out there dealing with stressful situations. When we have large school groups, we may have a child whose parent just deployed. In the same group, there may also be a child dealing with divorce, a child whose parent has a terminal illness, and a ’new kid’ struggling to make new friends,” she relates. “We don't know what each child is going through, but it is probably safe to assume that many are feeling some level of stress. This program prepares us to teach all kids coping mechanisms to deal with stress, no matter what that stress might be.”

“The program also brings together our staff, and gives us a new source of pride. All of us here at Crow's Neck are ’in it for the kids.’ The unique environment of [the] camp allows us to see our impact on the kids a little more. They're special kids. I envy their strength and courage. They have big hearts and they're going through a lot, but they're still kids. It is important for us to help them learn to deal with their stress and understand that they're not alone. Most importantly, we should listen and give them as much attention as possible. And don't forget that camp is a chance for these kids to relieve stress, meet new friends, and have fun!”

The National Military Family Association is a nonprofit organization committed to strengthening and protecting the families of the men and women currently serving, retired, wounded, or fallen. It provides families with information, works to get them the benefits they deserve, and offers programs that improve their lives. To learn more, visit www.MilitaryFamily.org.

Bailey Bernius is a public relations specialist for the National Military Family Association. He can be reached via e-mail at bbernius@militaryfamily.org.