Beyond the Yellow Ribbon

camps for kids with deployed parents

For the Sepeda girls, there was nothing worse than math. And occasionally, Amelia (12), Brianna (10), and Caitlyn’s (7) math class was enough to bring them to tears.

It hadn’t always been that way. Back when their father, David, was home to help them with their studies, they loved math. With David in Iraq, it left his wife Mary, acting as a single mother, to deal with their heartbroken kids who missed their dad the most when it came time to concentrate on numbers.

“If anything, it gave the girls a chance to bond over their dislike for math,” Mary says.

Though the girls could turn to each other for support, there were days when the emotional struggle was too much. Their math class was held just before midday, and occasionally Mary would get a phone call during lunch hour from a crying daughter. Once or twice she even got a call from the school to pick up the girls because they were so upset. Worried the school didn’t know how to handle children of a deployed parent, she gave the girls an emergency cell phone.

When the girls felt overwhelmed, they had the option of calling home. If Mary couldn’t soothe her usually happy, smiling girls, the she had a tactic to focus attention elsewhere. She’d pick them up and take them out for lunch to give them a break from their school day. 

“I think I made the other kids jealous,” Mary says. “The other kids would say, ‘You got to go to out for lunch!’”

Though David, a Sergeant First Class with the Minnesota National Guard, was deployed in the extreme conditions of the Middle Eastern desert, it was Mary who was on duty 24 hours a day caring for their three girls. 

She knew beforehand the challenges the four would face with David thousands of miles away. The whole family attended a Family Preparation Academy, put on by the Minnesota National Guard’s Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, months before David’s deployment. The event put Mary in touch with many organizations whose sole purpose is to support military families throughout the deployment process.

operation military kids

One program Mary turned to the most was Operation Military Kids (OMK), which helped keep the family strong both during and after David’s tour.

The United States Army, through annual grants to each state, funds OMK. Grants are received by 4-H, a major partner with OMK as they already work with youth and have staff and volunteers in every county of the state.

While their dad was gone, the four girls initially participated in a military bowling night hosted by OMK. Then there was snow tubing at Buck Hill and a holiday party that attracted hundreds of military spouses and kids facing the same difficulties as Amelia, Brianna, and Caitlyn. This opportunity to connect with other military kids and wives was especially important for them, because active duty bases don’t exist in Minnesota as they do in other states. 

Their outings provided support for David too. “It makes you feel good, knowing somebody is watching out for your family,” he says.

Mary liked how OMK had a good handle on what kinds of things kids wanted to do for fun, and the fact that they took special care in overseeing the kids during the events, so Mary could have some much needed time to herself.

“It was nice to get a break,” Mary says. “We all thought about dad all the time … this gave us a chance to not think about him for two hours.”

As for Amelia and her two sisters, it was a good chance to run off and do their own thing. More importantly, the girls got a chance to really connect with other kids who knew exactly how they were feeling.

team building

David returned in May of 2009. When he stepped off the bus that day, all of his girls were there waving posters, excited to have their dad back. The initial reception and euphoria of having a loved one return was “terrific,” and Amelia was delighted that her father had a rose for her and her sisters. 

After being reunited, the Sepedas could move onto that final phase of deployment: reintegration. And with dad finally home, there was a camp for that, too.

That July, David and Brianna attended a one-day camp at the Koinonia Retreat Center near South Haven, in Wright County. The event, hosted by OMK, got the two out to experience a wide variety of camp adventures — even a few military exercises.

“The idea is, if we can get the families out, throw some military activities at them,” 4-H program manager Michelle VanDyke says, “that should get them talking about the experience.”

David, who was initially hesitant to attend any event, signed the entire family up for a three-day family camp in August at Ironwood Springs Ranch by Stewartville. While there, the five of them ran through the scavenger hunt course and cruised down the zip line. At night, the girls would climb on the camp’s “Big Red Chair” with other camp kids after a day of new experiences.

“It’s good to have them spend time doing things they typically wouldn’t do together,” VanDyke says, “Things to bring them together.”

Today, 12 year-old Amelia offers a ringing endorsement for OMK. She says that military families going through the deployment cycle “should probably get the family together and work on team building.”

Back together as a family and stronger yet as a team, David and his four girls have been breezing through all that math homework.

Amelia’s young advice is timely as 2,400 Minnesota National Guard families are currently preparing for the state’s second largest deployment since World War II. The 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, will leave for training in May 2011 for a one-year deployment in support of Operation New Dawn, the drawdown phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom. 

Sgt. Patrick Loch is the public affairs specialist with Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, MN National Guard.

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