SANDSTON, Va. — At Camp Pendleton, the Virginia National Guard’s oceanfront training base in Virginia Beach, one week of each of the past 11 summers has been dedicated to military kids. In late July or early August, approximately one hundred kids and teens, all with a parent serving in the Virginia Army or Air National Guard, come together for the Virginia National Guard Youth Program’s Annual National Guard Youth Camp.
“My brother, Stevie, started attending the Youth Camp when he was 8-years-old,” Tanisha Roberts wrote in a letter to the Virginia National Guard Youth Program. “He was greeted by a great team of people [who] gave hugs and reassured Stevie that he was going to have a blast that week, and he did. He couldn’t stop talking about it on the way home.”
That National Guard’s Youth Camp targets kids between eight and 12-years-old who are dependents of currently-serving Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen. The six-day, overnight camp “has a broad range of educational, team-oriented and resilience-building activities,” according to this year’s camp flyer. Typically, both local and national organizations get involved to make the camp a success, with the Red Cross, local Police and Fire Departments providing support, as well as various Virginia National Guard units based in the area. The kids learn about robotics, physics, chemistry and visual art, but also about what it means to be a member of a military family.
“As far as content, we focus on two skill areas of camp,” explained Joe Duerksen, lead youth coordinator for the Virginia National Guard. “There’s subject matter skills, like STEM education, community capacity and information about the National Guard, and then life skills, specifically communication, self-efficacy, competence, relationships and resilience.”
During Stevie’s second year of camp, his father was deployed with the Powhatan-based 180th Engineer Company. “My brother was heartbroken and it was not an easy transition for him at first,” Roberts explained.
At camp that year, Stevie learned about the American flag. He learned about the 13 stripes, how they represent the original 13 colonies, and the 50 stars that represent the 50 United States of America. He learned about the colors of the flag, how white represents purity and innocence, red, hardiness and valor, and blue, for vigilance, perseverance and justice. He even learned how to fold an American flag.
“They helped him to understand that the deployment wasn’t just about the war that was going on, it was about the American flag, what it meant to the Soldiers that were deployed,” Roberts wrote. “They definitely helped him look at all that was going on from a different perspective.”
Duerksen explained that this understanding of the deployment process is part of what sets this camp apart from other, non-Guard affiliated programs. “For 12 years, our Virginia National Guard families have had a camp that provides the opportunity for National Guard kids to relate to and connect with other Guard kids,” he said. “Families in the National Guard may be going through various phases of deployment, so special consideration is taken to provide support and education to those youth through activities during the week.”
A few years after their father’s deployment, Stevie and Roberts lost their mother unexpectedly. Roberts says it was a hard time for the family, but Stevie still wanted to go to camp that year, in spite of the family’s loss. By this point, he’d transitioned from a camper to a junior counselor, and had a new purple t-shirt to go with the job.
“The graduation from one color of shirt to the next has become a rite of passage for many of the campers and teens at camp,” Duerksen said. He explained that first, campers start out in light blue t-shirts, then move on to burgundy, gold, green, orange and royal blue as they age up. In 2011, purple was added to bridge the gap for kids too old too be campers and teens too young to be teen counselors. Dubbed “Purple People,” the intermediate position for 13 and 14-year-olds has become a junior counselor role. The teens assist with the campers and learn underneath the older teens.
“Working your way up through the color t-shirts was a huge ordeal for the kids that attend camp year after year,” wrote Roberts. “Camp that year taught him responsibility, character, integrity and motivation.”
Last summer, Stevie transitioned again, and became a teen counselor, this time with a red t-shirt. Teen counselors, who now wear neon green t-shirts, are high schoolers, ages 15 to 18, who help the adults facilitate and supervise all camp activities.
“My dad and I were amazed at how he had worked his way up from a purple shirt counselor to a red shirt counselor,” Roberts explained. “We knew being a red shirt counselor came with a little more hard work and a lot more responsibility, but we also knew he’d be up for the challenge.”
Duerksen said he’s known Stevie for about two years. “We honestly never knew the background of his story because of how composed he was as a young man,” he said. “He was loved by all the campers and staff at camp.”
Today, Stevie is a 17-year-old senior at Kenston Forest School, in Blackstone, Virginia. He’s looking forward to graduation in June and has maintained a 4.0 GPA throughout his high school career. This fall, Stevie will attend Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Virginia, and plans to major in history.
“Kids like Stevie who have moved up the ranks all the way to teen counselors see camp as a journey of maturity through the greater National Guard family,” Duerksen said. “Camp becomes a constant, a stronghold to reconnect, re-identify and build relationships with others who share the same life experience.”
Stevie told his sister, “There were several things I loved about going to camp, the activities, the kids and the friendships that I made over the years.”
Registration for this year’s National Guard Youth Camp is now open. The camp is open to all dependents of current members of the Virginia Army and Air National Guard. This year, camp will be held July 23-28, 2017, at Camp Pendleton in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The cost for the camp is $150 and registration closes June 16, 2017. To register and learn more about the camp, visit www.jointservicessupport.org/Download/CAMPAPP. Contact Joe Duerksen, Virginia National Guard lead youth coordinator, at 804-236-7866 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Silena Motley, state youth coordinator for the Virginia National Guard, at 804-236-7865 or by email at email@example.com.
April is the Month of the Military Child. This awareness month was established to underscore the important role children play in the Armed Forces community. “Military children make up a very special part of our nation’s population. Although young, these brave sons and daughters stand in steadfast support of their military parents,” according to the Department of Defense. April is designated as the Month of the Military Child to honor the contributions and sacrifices these children make on behalf of our country.