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State is launching support for 'Military Kids'

By Erin O'Connor

Staff Writer



WESTFIELD "In the past we were in a time where each child was going through the same things. Now that is very different," Gretchen May, state coordinator of Operation Military Kids (OMK), said.

On Sept.28 a presentation at the Boys and Girls Club for the Massachusetts division of OMK was met with approval by many area representatives.

Organizations involved

Attendance included May; Shirley Mietlicki, public relations chair for OMK; Bill Parks, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club; John Dowd, of the American Legion and Rick Mazza, former Boys and Girls Club member who recently served a 30- month tour for the military in Iraq. In addition representatives were present from Westover Air Reserve Base, Barnes Air National Guard Base and the National Guard. Mothers and individuals assisting with families of military overseas were also present.

What is OMK?

A public service announcement, that will soon be aired, defined Military Kids as;

"the result of National Guard, Reserve and other military parents living in civilian communities who are mobilized."

May said that to reach out to these military youths and families, a national and statewide initiative called OMK was created.

"This is brainstorming on how to work together to further support "suddenly military" children in Western Massachusetts," Shirley Mietlicki, public relations chair for MA OMK, said.

"They [military kids] face unique challenges and experiences. Many of their usual support systems may no longer be adequate," May said. "They seek friends and adults who can empathize and can help them cope with their new world."

May said that she was approached by OMK a few years ago with the opportunity to create a regional program in Massachusetts for OMK. May works at the University of Massachusetts in the extended 4-H program .

"It [OMK] has been going on for about ten years through 4-H," May said. "When Iraq War broke out a number of children and youths needs became much more," she said.

May and Mietlicki said they are currently building a regional team in western Massachusetts for the OMK program and seeking community members to become involved.

Components of OMK

Components of OMK include "hero packs", organized events, "speak-outs" for military kids and aid in various areas.

We are hoping to obtain mobile technology labs May said.

"Hero packs" are care packages made to thank and salute children of deployed parents for their sacrifice made as military youth, May said.

There are 16 "hero packs" left and OMK has given out 136 packs that they received from the Army since December.

The Army has said they will not be giving anymore packs and OMK is looking for donations from volunteers to keep this component going May said.

"It is a fun thing to do and the kids really like it," she said. "We are taking suggestions to design something else for teenagers and would like some input."

"Mobile tech labs are something that we don't have yet but are on the big agenda," she said.

They would include 15 laptops, printers, digital and video cameras so cards and videos can be made by youths and sent to soldiers.

"It is something that was funded in a couple states during the first year of OMK but then money got tighter," May said.

What community is doing

"All military kids receive a free membership to the Club," Parks said. "You do not have to live in Westfield to be a member of the Boys and Girls Club," he said.

"Being a youth serving organ I know very well that these kids need services," Lerryn E. Godden, of the Boys and Girls Club, said.

Godden said that there has been a Military kids dinner at the Club as well as other activities in the past and planned for the future.

"I am here from the American Legion to listen and learn and see what we can do," Dowd said.

Ready, Set, Go ! Workshops are being initiated throughout the state, May said, to train members of the community in the OMK programs.

The workshops are led by trained facilitators and designed for youth workers, educators, counselors and community service agency staff to offer an insight into military culture, the deployment cycle and ways to better provide for , understand the needs of, and support military children and their families

Who are OMK's affiliates?

OMK is funded by the United States Army. Nationally OMK is a partnership of the U.S. Army Child and Youth Services, 4-H, Veterans Service Organizations, Military Child Education Coalition, Boys and Girls Club of America and National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.

In addition statewide it is a collaborative of UMass Extension, UMass School of Public Health and Health Sciences, MA Department of Education, MA National Guard, U.S. Army Reserve, Operation Homefront, the American Legion and military spouses.

For further information contact Gretchen May at 413-577-0332 or visit www.operationmilitarykids.org.

There are 34 states in the United States who are involved in OMK.