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Safe haven for military kids

Hill Field school’s ‘den’ is popular spot

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CLEARFIELD — Eric Rosser has made a lot of friends — many more than the average 9-year-old. But like others at Hill Field Elementary, he doesn't always get to keep them long.

Students who go to the school next to Hill Air Force Base are a little different than other kids.

Many say "ma'am" and "sir," a large number were born in other states and countries such as Japan, Turkey and England. And just about all of them know what it's like to say goodbye to friends they will never see again or watch a deployed parent leave.

It can be tough; it can be stressful. And often there are tears at school.

But this year, school counselor Chris Bertoldi created a place for kids to come who need an outlet.

The Panther Den during lunch finds several students eating with Bertoldi, e-mailing parents who are deployed and marking places on maps where they are. There is also a secluded place for writing letters.

Rosser, who frequents the Den, has lived in five different places from Delaware to Alaska. His friends' stories are similar, and they all agree moving is never easy.

"I miss my friends and I lose friends, and sometimes I can't remember them unless I have a yearbook," said Rosser.

Ryan Crowningshield, 9, has long since abandoned the idea of keeping in touch with buddies after a move, but that doesn't make leaving any easier.

"It makes me sad — but when I am gone I'm gone; it's too hard to (stay in touch)," said Crowningshield.

Principal Paul Bryner said Hill Field's turnover is about 100 percent over two years.

Aside from leaving friends, missing friends and making new ones, Hill Field students face what Bryner calls the biggest unsung stressor — parents being gone and in harm's way.

Katelin Cooper, 9, said when she was younger and her father was gone she slept with her mom each night, afraid an intruder would be in the house with no one to protect them.

Kids go through a lot with a parent being gone, said Marija King, a parent at the school.

"Like my kids, their dad has been gone so often in the past 10 years, and it breaks their heart every time (he) leaves," said King. "But with the program they can see that other kids are going through the same thing. It helps them a lot."

Bertoldi said he came up with the idea of the Panther Den while looking for a better way to help more kids.

The den is open three days a week, and nearly 200 students visit during a rotating lunch period.

They have a chart marked with all the places each child has lived, where their parents are deployed and what bases they have been on.

Some talk about where their parents are and what they are doing. Some occasionally voice worries, and some just hang out. But it gives Bertoldi a way to reach out to all those who need it.

If some aren't able to get the attention they need from him or from teachers, maybe they can find an outlet in the Den, said Bertoldi.

He started the Den this month but is already making plans to expand it because so many students want to participate. Nearly 200 kids share a small room, and there's only one computer to e-mail parents.

Nonetheless, it also has a learning component as students learn geography, letter-writing and computer skills.

E-mail: terickson@desnews.com