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Operation Military Kids teams up with 4-H

Posted 1/28/2008

Military program provides opportunities for guard and reserve families during deployment

When the war started in Iraq in 2004, many Nevada Army Guard and Army Reserve families waited anxiously to hear if their loved ones were next to be called up and shipped overseas to defend the country in the global war against terrorism.

Four years later, those families still face the same possibilities, leaving their children confused, worried and troubled.

Now, with 4-H in 17 Nevada counties teaming up with a new youth program, military children can participate in fun, diverse activities including animal science, shooting sports, after school programs, leadership camps, Cloverbuds and 4-H camp at Lake Tahoe.

Operation: Military Kids (OMK) started nationally in 2004, and University of Nevada Cooperative Extension (UNCE) received funding from the National 4-H Headquarters to launch the program in Nevada a year later to support children and youth impacted by deployment. OMK has touched 65,000 military youth and provided information to 7,200 community members across the United States.

While these youth may not relocate, their lives are changed dramatically when a parent or relative leaves the family because of mobilization or deployment for potentially dangerous assignments.

Because the program is new in Nevada, Warren Andersen, UNCE military and technology assistant to OMK Nevada, and Eric Killian, UNCE 4-H military liaison, are trying to get the word out so that more families can be helped to handle deployment of their loved ones.

"Operation Military Kids is a new program to the state and it will help children affected by the deployment of their parents or relatives," Andersen said.

Approaching its third year with the youth program, Nevada has partnered with 4-H, a statewide UNCE program, to include military youth.

"4-H is in every county of every state in the United States of America," Andersen said. "Iraqi Freedom mobilized a tremendous number of guardsmen. Most live in small towns where there are no military services for their families, and the guard does not provide family services."

Small communities like Winnemucca and Hawthorne are affected by deployment because of low populations. Andersen said that when a unit is deployed, the entire town is aware.

With the 4-H program’s strong presence in the state, especially in rural communities, Andersen said military families can benefit with their children participating in the programs and strengthening awareness for OMK.

"We are trying to reach the soldiers, airmen and sailors in Fallon," Andersen said. "Although the naval air station in Fallon has some family services, we still want to provide their children with these additional opportunities."

4-H is the largest out-of-school youth organization in the United States with more than seven million members, including 38,505 young people in Nevada 4-H in 2006. 4-H promotes life skills development through community and project clubs, military and 4-H after school programs, special interest groups, school enrichment, camping and more.

Working with many of the state’s school districts, especially Clark County, more than 200 counselors have been trained in the Ready, Set, Go (RSG) program to help them better understand the issues facing military families during deployment and war time. More educators will be trained in April 2008 in Elko and Clark counties.

"We’re reaching out to the people who have the most impact on military kids," Andersen said. "Our goal is to increase community awareness and do things with the community."

Events and activities for youth provide them with a safe environment to share their experiences, learn new skills and network with others. For example, Carson City 4-H and National Guard held a bicycle safety day in September about the consequences of riding unsafe, teaching participants that not wearing a helmet or riding on a busy street can lead to injurious or fatal accidents.

Other programs in the state include Speak Out for Military Kids (SOMK) and Project Thunder, located on Nellis Air Force Base in southern Nevada. Project Thunder is connected with OMK and is a UNCE program. Another program for military youth is the Operation Purple Camp, a collaborative camp for teens with 4-H and the military run in Clark County.

SOMK is a supported project that creates community awareness of issues and concerns faced by military children and youth. SOMK provides youth program opportunities for elementary, middle school and teenaged youth and connects them to support resources where they live. Participants can be expected to develop public service announcements, work with video productions to tell their stories and work with interactive theater productions.

Project Thunder brings together middle and high school youth representing diverse backgrounds, and provides training in personal leadership, decision-making and civic responsibility. Youth attend residential leadership conferences, participate in adventure-based activities such as repelling and trust exercises, take part in monthly seminars and commit to working together on community projects.

Participants developed stronger decision making skills and were taught to be more comfortable talking in front of large groups. They also participated in community service projects totaling more than 600 hours of service in 2006.

"Project Thunder’s title comes from working with the air force base who houses the Thunderbirds elite flying team," Killian said. "It’s a teen leadership program, and now we are having children of the National Guard involved as well."

While the National Guard provides family-based programs outside OMK, Killian said they are trying to work on a partnership with the guard to help military families.

"In most cases, it’s something new to them," Killian said about OMK. "They weren’t sure what we offered, so when people go on their weekend drills, we hand out information to them for their families. We’re trying to cross our programs together."

Killian, who handles the overall statewide and southern Nevada military programs, said that OMK made "Hero Packs," which helps children stay connected to their deployed parents. Hero Packs consist of disposable cameras, journals, bracelets and stationary. Each pack contains a handwritten letter to the military youth recipient from the non-military youth and parent information on resources available to their child in the community.

"We gave away 60 Hero Packs to a group that deployed on Veterans Day," Killian added. "It’s kind of an acknowledgment that a child is left behind. It acknowledges that they are heroes too."

Guard and reserve families face deployment issues regularly, but OMK Nevada can help children handle the absence of their loved ones through leadership programs and 4-H.

For more information, contact Andersen at (775) 784-6608 or Killian at (702) 257-5542, or visit www.unce.unr.edu . You can also locate information about OMK on the UNCE 4-H website at www.unce.unr.edu/4H.

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