PINELLAS COUNTY – When naming the organizations that assist the families of America’s men and women in uniform, the USO and the American Red Cross immediately come to mind. But now the 4-H Club can be added to the list.
“Our goal is to work with the reserve and National Guard to provide services to children whose parents are fighting the war on terrorism,” said Janet Harper, 4-H youth development department program leader at Pinellas County Extension. “The reservist’s family goes overnight from being a civilian family to being a military family. It’s a whole new way of life.”
For the adults, it may mean a transition from flourishing on a hefty civilian salary to surviving on a soldier’s meager pay. For the kids, it means going from a two-parent home to a single-parent home, or going from a single-parent home to staying with grandparents or other relatives.
“We want the community to know that these kids are out there,” said Harper, a former reservist. “They might be living next door to you without your even knowing it.”
The 4-H Club teamed up with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S Army to assist the families of activated reservists and Guard members. They started prototype Operation Military Kids programs in Jacksonville, the Florida Panhandle and the Tampa Bay area. The Tampa Bay team, which was established in November to cover Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, is currently doing a needs assessment to find the best ways to help.
On Feb. 12, the program hosted a Hero Day at the Florida State Fair. Children of civilian families were invited to fill 50 Hero Pack backpacks with goodies for children of Guard or reserve troops deployed overseas and include a handwritten note and a Polaroid photograph of themselves.
“It’s sort of a youth-to-youth community service project,” Harper said. “We have another one coming up soon, and we hope to distribute several hundred Hero Packs during the next year.”
In June, Operation Military Kids will host a weekend retreat at MacDill Air Force Base for 30 children and 10 adults from bay area military and 4-H families. Among other things, the military kids will develop programs to be presented at civic groups to tell them what it is like having a parent in harm’s way.
Early this fall, at the Ocala 4-H Camp, Operation Military Kids will have a family camp for the children of deployed reservists and Guard members and the parent or guardian with which they live. The adults will be told about the support system available to them through the military. The kids will undergo “mock deployments,” in which they will pack duffel bags and handle military equipment to help them better understand the shipping out process.
“We want to get the families involved, not just the youth,” Harper said. “But the roots of 4-H are in educating the youth and having them bring the information home to their parents.”