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Program helps soldiers' children

Youths with deployed parents enjoy camaraderie at camps

An Operation Military Kids camp participant climbs a rock wall at Zion Ponderosa Ranch & Resort in Kane County.
An Operation Military Kids camp participant climbs a rock wall at Zion Ponderosa Ranch & Resort in Kane County.
Berny Sumulong

MT. CARMEL, Kane County — Many kids see their parents every day. But military youths with a deployed parent aren't so lucky.

Instead, their hugs and 'I love yous' come through webcams, Skype, e-mail, phone calls and pictures — if only for moments at a time.

But through a collaboration among the U.S. Army and various communities, Operation Military Kids was launched to support youths with deployed parents. Since the program's inception in April 2005, 88,000 military youths have taken part.

One way is through summer camps that allow military kids to get away with others experiencing similar circumstances and emotions.

Last month at Zion Ponderosa Ranch & Resort in Kane County, it was no different. Camp director Eric Killian made his annual trek to the ranch along with about 60 Air Force youths from Nevada. An associate professor at University of Nevada Las Vegas in his sixth year as a camp director, he keeps coming back because he sees the impact it makes on teens.

"Kids love the camp; they overcome their fears, gain new skills, understand themselves better and want to come back," he said. "Even their parents wish they could attend this type of camp."

"It's cool being around other kids whose parents are deployed," says Mitchell Hall, 14, a third-year camper whose parents both serve in the military.

Counselor Ryan Young, 39, of Alton, Kane County, adds, "It's an opportunity for them to not have to think about the seriousness of their mom or dad being away and what that entails."

Throughout the week the youths hike in Zion National Park, compete in team GPS and paintball competitions, take horseback rides, ride a zip line, take a personality assessment, participate in team building exercises and games, skeet shoot, rock climb, make crafts and more.

Jessica Guy, 16, a second-year camper whose father is currently serving in Iraq, said she enjoys camp a lot. "It's fun and I get to meet new people. Last year I found out I worked well with kids. I learned how to communicate better with people. You get to see a lot of people who've been through the same things."

"We understand it more, that (deployment) happens, and it's not that bad. We have the same experiences," said fourth-year camper Nyasla Hightower, 15, whose father and mother both serve in the military and whose father is currently serving in Iraq.

Andy Deleon, a solider from Nellis Air Force Base, enjoys helping to make a difference with youths at the camp.

"I just got back from deployment (in Iraq and Afghanistan) and had enough time to be a counselor. I love doing things outdoors and especially being around kids and hanging out. If I hadn't come as a counselor, not as many kids would have been able to attend.

"It gives them an opportunity and outlet to socialize with people in the same situation and to reach out to each other and to talk about their concerns. That's a definite plus," Deleon said.

"One year, four years ago, they made the camp like a deployment, said Zach Piper, 15. "We had MREs, duffle bags, etc. At the start of camp, we had to unpack our suitcases and put our stuff in duffle bags. They tried to make us kids experience deployment like our parents. It mainly provided leadership for us.

"This camp is definitely a big character-builder."