Operation Hero

Since 1920, the Armed Services YMCA San Diego has worked to make military life easier for active duty personnel and their families through an array of free services focused on healthy living, social responsibility and youth development.

Growing pains can be very real, especially when mom or dad is deployed for months on end, you have to move homes again, change schools, leave your friends behind and start the process anew at the next duty station. Such is the unique life for children of military families - families whose service comes with extreme sacrifice. Military families face the same struggles civilian families face with the added element of deployment, relocation and separation. Since 1920, the Armed Services YMCA San Diego (ASY) has worked to make military life easier for active duty personnel and their families through an array of free services focused on healthy living, social responsibility and youth development. "The military does a great job taking care of its own," says Cat Quirk, ASY director of public relations. "We help that cause by serving the military member and targeting our programs for the specific challenges they face." Quirk says the ASY, one of 33 branches and affiliates nationwide, supports members of local military households through more than 9,000 points of service each month. The ASY targets primarily the junior enlisted family with services ranging from at-home counseling to neighborhood grocery exchanges. Operation Hero is designed for children of military families who are identified by their parents or teachers as having self-esteem issues or difficulty adjusting at school, says Lyndsay Neer, ASY senior program director. Students attend two two-hour sessions per week for eight weeks, she says. More than 60 children have been part of the program this year, Neer says. An additional day-camp accommodates 50-60 kids each summer. The sessions are run by ASY program leaders who have backgrounds in education and child development. "Many of our professionals have military experience as well," Neer says. "During their time with us, we instill in the children the skills they need to manage their feelings and friendships. We want them to have the tools and resources they need to continue building their self-esteem and take those tools with them to the next duty station." Students write in journals, create artistic masterpieces and play outdoor games, like "self-esteem tag," where they have to say something positive about themselves once they are "it." "Our military children are oftentimes isolated and feel alone in their situation," Neer says. "Operation Hero is a way to feel they are part of a group and not alone. We empower them to learn how to manage their feelings and friendships. We teach them how to solve problems on their own." "We look at conflict resolution and bullying, for example," she says. "All kids face this. For us, we have found it's important to OPERATION HERO By LESLIE FILSON help our military children through this because they don't necessarily have all the resources a civilian family has given the extreme military work demands, deployments and not always an extended family that can help through challenges." Lani, a Navy wife in Tierrasanta with three children ages 4 through 12, says the challenges her family faces can be overwhelming. Her oldest son, who has autism, is affectionate and always concerned about his little sister; her middle son is the "strength" in the family; and her independent daughter "rules the roost," she says. The family has moved five times in 13 years. Her husband, a supply officer, has been stationed in San Diego for two years. He's been gone about half that time, Lani says. With no extended family near, the family relies heavily on neighbors in military housing, Lani says. "The kids know they have family, but in their eyes family can consist of people who aren't family, and that's how we deal with it," she says. "We go to the store and my kids are always talking to strangers. I have to let them because everywhere we go it's a whole new set of strangers." Operation Hero has allowed her two sons to understand they aren't alone. "It has helped the boys learn who they are, learn what Dad does and learn what they want out of life and how to handle things," Lani says. "It has made them realize they are not the only kids going through it. There are others around them going through it. They learn to fall back on their strengths and do it together. They are not alone."

"Operation Hero is a way to feel they are part of a group and not alone. We empower them to learn how to manage their feelings and friendships."

 • The Padres support Armed Services YMC A San Diego, a nonprofit that serves active duty military personnel; military families; and wounded or ill service members through free programs and services designed to ease the unique challenges of military life.

• The ASY's Operation Hero is an onsite afterschool program that focuses on character development and skill building in military children who may be exhibiting low self-esteem or facing difficulty adjusting both academically and socially at school. Curriculum is designed to help children handle the challenges of military life, provide tools to help them succeed in school and help develop a positive self-image while improving social and communication skills.

• For more information, go to www.militaryymca.org