Archive for Saturday, July 7, 2007

Summer camps offer comfort to children of Guard troops

July 7, 2007

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Several young boys work on welcome home signs for their fathers June 27 at Camp Noah in Baxter, Minn. The camp is a free program for children with parents serving in the National Guard and offers an opportunity for them to share their cares.

Several young boys work on welcome home signs for their fathers June 27 at Camp Noah in Baxter, Minn. The camp is a free program for children with parents serving in the National Guard and offers an opportunity for them to share their cares.

— It's show-and-tell day at Camp Noah, and 8-year-old Emmily Woodward has something she wants the other kids to see.

The pigtailed girl holds up a picture of a U.S. soldier with burns on his face. "This is my dad," she says, explaining that her father burned down a stand of tall weeds in Iraq because insurgents were believed to be hiding guns in them. The flames "went up high," she said.

The children look on with interest but little shock. Frightening stories from the war are nothing new for kids at Camp Noah, which offers comfort to children of National Guard troops while their parents fight overseas.

"These kids, like their parents, have made tremendous sacrifices, and at a very formative period of their lives," said Jim Gambone, a consultant to Lutheran Social Services, which organized the camp at the request of the Minnesota National Guard.

"Most of these kids, there might be one other kid in their school with a parent in Iraq," Gambone added. "This is to let them know there are other kids going through the exact same things."

The camp aims to teach youngsters how to better handle sorrow and anxiety and to get them ready for the readjustments that come with the return of a long-absent parent.

"We had one 7-year-old who was worried his father would not recognize him," said Cheryl Steffen, who's leading the Camp Noah in Baxter, one of four camps offered this year in Minnesota.

Like any camp, it includes outdoor games, skits and songs, and arts and crafts projects. But it also has sessions designed to get kids talking about stress.

During one session, counselor Sally Jacobsen asks a group of 8- to 10-year-olds to talk about problems they've had with mom or dad gone. The discussion sparks a little tension between Alivia and Elizabeth Rardin, sisters whose father has been gone since September 2005 and is due back by the end of August.

"She's meaner to me," Elizabeth said, as her older sister looks on. "She's more mean to me because when dad's home, he's the one who yells at me. She thinks she can."

The girl's mother, Theresa Rardin, said in an interview that Alivia has taken on more responsibilities in her father's absence, including help caring for her siblings, which include two more younger sisters besides Elizabeth.

"She's become so responsible and so mature. It's a good thing, but sometimes I think, 'You're just a kid. Have fun,'" said Theresa Rardin, saying she has become more of a disciplinarian than before her husband left.

Rardin said when she feels sad or worried she tries to remind herself that her daughters are going through the same thing - and may not be as equipped to deal with it.

"They're kids and they don't know how to put things into words," Rardin said. "That's why I think this camp will help them to see the things they've been feeling are normal."

The first Camp Noah was set up 12 years ago for children whose families lost their homes in flooding in Minnesota.

Last summer, Lutheran Social Services, with help from other relief agencies, put on Camp Noah sessions for young victims of the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes at 74 sites in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Alabama.

In addition to helping verbalize their fears, Camp Noah tries to help kids recognize their talents, solve problems and learn to relax.

During the session she led, Jacobsen helped 8-year-old Jack Worden recognize something he does to make his mom feel better about his dad's absence - and encouraged him to keep it up.

"Whenever my mom cries, I just hug her," the little boy said. "And then she's just like ..." and his face broke into a wide, happy smile.

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