Military Kids Look to Extracurricular Activities to Cope With Parents' Deployment

Support services for kids of parents who are deployed in the military

Ask 9-year old Valerie Gonzalez of Alhambra, Calif., about her father's job, and she flashes a toothless smile.

"I like it. My dad knows how to protect me," she said of Army Master Sgt. Juan Gonzalez, a member of the California Army National Guard, who recently returned from a tour of Kosovo. "Daddy protects California."

But Valerie's mother, Denise Gonzalez, recalled that the first-grader had a different reaction when her father initially deployed.

"Some of the kids in Valerie's class would say, 'Your dad's never coming home,'" the mother recalled with tears welling in her eyes. "She would just go into her room and cry, 'I want Daddy! I want Daddy!'"

Valerie and her sister, Breanna, 5, are among the 1.7 million Americans under the age of 18 who have a parent serving in the military, according to a White House estimate. Of these, about 900,000 have had one or both parents deployed multiple times.

And with President Obama's 2011 budget containing $33 billion for a troop surge in Afghanistan and almost $160 billion for ongoing military support, children of service members continue to bear the stresses of deployment.

Help Through Extracurricular Activities

For the Gonzalez family and thousands of others, the deployment of a parent has a widespread impact -- and many times, tighter finances mean that kids feel the burden.

"When the reserve guard deploys, sometimes their military pay isn't the same as their civilian pay, so the family budget tightens up," said Linda Davidson, founder and executive director of Our Military Kids. "Oftentimes, one of the first things that has to come out of the family budget are extracurricular activities for children."

Our Military Kids, a non-profit group, is working to fill that financial void by awarding grants to children of deployed National Guard and Reserve service members. Since its inception in 2004, the group has utilized federal funding to award more than $5.7 million to almost 15,000 children for participation in extracurricular activities, such as tutoring, fine arts programs and sports.

Valerie Gonzalez is among the first recipients of this generosity. This week, she and her family traveled to Washington, D.C., where she was named one of four "Military Kids of the Year" and received a grant to support an extracurricular activity for $500 or up to six months of a program tuition. Valerie is using her grant to take tap dance lessons.

"It's not a substantial grant, but it might make the difference of a child being able to participate in an activity or not," Davidson said.

Extracurricular activities help put military children into a regular routine and allow them to focus on something positive, rather than on their parent's deployment. Such activities also provide the children with a skill or talent to share with the parent once he or she returns home, she said.

Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, director of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University, said the extracurricular activities are an essential part of the coping process because they help kids recognize and process their feelings about a parent's deployment.

While military kids are well-attuned to their parents' challenges, they might be afraid of sharing their feelings and further burdening the at-home parent, she said.

But placing a child in an activity or support group -- especially one that includes fellow military kids -- allows them to share their feelings in a constructive way.

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