My dad and two of my uncles are gone [to Iraq]. When my dad got the call I was devastated. I had no idea how to react because I wasn't emotionally ready to hear he was leaving for two years. -TEEN OF IDAHO NATIONAL GUARD FAMILY
Suddenly Military-4-H helps kids speak out
By Bill Loftus
4-H and the Idaho National Guard strengthened ties this summer, encouraging the state's youth to team up in support of children whose parents are deployed for military service. "We will do all we can.to support not only our troops but also their families," Gov. Dirk Kempthorne pledged to 51 youths who gathered at Boise's Gowen Field in July for Speak Out for Military Kids. "You have given birth to a great idea-to a concept that will have power."
A few weeks later, in Pocatello, the National Guard sponsored a "boot camp" for local military young people that also drew 4-H and University of Idaho Extension support. "Part of our job is to promote community awareness," said Bannock County 4-H Educator April Ward. "This is happening to us, and we need to support the families and the kids affected by this deployment."
The UI 4-H program's role in serving military families began before events at Pocatello or Boise, and before the Iraq war. UI's Carol Benesh, Caldwell, is among the nation's leading 4-H specialists working to provide opportunities for "suddenly military" youths.
Helping kids shoulder new responsibilities
Children of parents on active military duty know more about what to expect when their parents must leave, says Benesh. Often living on or near military bases, they can share experiences with peers and friends in similar situations. However, children whose parents are in the National Guard or reserves find themselves "suddenly military," and often do not have friends or peers who understand their loss.
Accustomed to weekend absences of parents during reserve training exercises, the children of parents deployed for a year overseas must suddenly shoulder heavier responsibilities. New duties might range from more household chores to even taking jobs to help families remain solvent.
New programs will draw on those experiences and the expertise of Idaho National Guard, including their family assistance centers. "4-H is sharing what we do, and we're learning what they do," Benesh said. "We're laying the groundwork, and we're planning for the future."
Centers for seven Idaho counties
Cooperative programs are being established with National Guard family assistance centers in seven counties-Ada, Bannock, Bonneville, Canyon, Kootenai, Nez Perce, and Twin Falls, says Grace Wittman, 4-H technology and military program assistant in Moscow.
Funding for each center will support efforts organized by young people involved. Options might be family nights out, spaghetti feeds, or youth activities, so parents can have an evening for themselves.
July's speak out event in Boise was one of several organized by 15 pilot states in Operation: Military Kids, the 4-H partnership with National Guard and Army Reserve. Speak out is its educational component. "It was a way to bring 4-H members and children of Idaho military families together to gain a better understanding of each other," said Wittman.
The Treasure Valley Guard/4-H group met in early fall to continue planning. In Twin Falls, 4-H and military youths meet every other month to coordinate activities.
Enthusiasm for helping military kids in Bannock County also runs high. The National Guard-organized summer event gave youths an opportunity to have fun and build a sense of community. Area 4-H'ers came to help, setting up and running an obstacle course. That set the stage for more collaboration, Ward said. "I had several comments from parents like, 'Wow. I didn't know 4-H did this.' We gained more recognition that 4-H is a program to help build life skills.
"We're coordinating future events together," Ward added. One likely focus will draw on 4-H's traditional club-centered approach to activities, providing monthly meetings this win- ter, centered around military youths.
Working together is the greatest strength, adds Alisa Reiss, Pocatello, whose husband is a National Guards-man in Iraq. She serves as youth group coordinator for a family readiness group. "Many events are organized by and for military families. Including 4-H adds another dimension," says Reiss. "It is really good be-cause it will give us a variety of things to do, and military kids will be able to meet people with different interests. It can also help 4-H kids understand what other kids are going through."
Kids active in their own destinies
A principal organizer of Speak Out, the Idaho National Guard Youth Group Coordinator Lynda Waite, thought kids who participated at the Gowen Field event learned a lot. Her 17-year-old daughter Ariel and friend Natasha Coggins spent 10 days visiting Nampa middle schools in early fall giving one-hour talks to 6th to 8th graders about support programs for National Guard and military kids.
They got guidance at Gowen Field during public speaking workshops by longtime 4-H volunteer Andy Smyth. He encouraged the Speak Out crew to take active roles in their own destinies. "When an accomplished teen gets up and makes a great presentation, it really makes a tremendous impression on public officials, business people, and adults in general," Smyth said.
Ariel Waite, a senior at Nampa's Skyview High School, found the Gowen event "helped me prepare what to say to my audience and how to present myself. I feel like the kids are actually listening to me instead of being in their own little worlds. I didn't know how to read an audience before, so that was really helpful."
Elected president of the Idaho National Guard Youth Group in August, Waite is "very happy that I went. I got to meet other kids in the community and they got to understand some of the things that we're dealing with."
And that's the point of Speak Out.
Contact Arlinda Nauman director of Idaho 4-H, at email@example.com.