A camp for kids coping with war wounds of a parent
Camp COPE has helped more than 1,000 children in places ranging from Texas to Florida.
Fort Riley, Kan.
Kevin, a 6-year-old with a buzz cut and long eyelashes, says he wants to lose an eye ... to be like his dad.Skip to next paragraph
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His father, 1st Sgt. Kevin Walker, survived a bomb blast in Iraq four years ago. Now, he's brought his son to the Army base's middle school here for a day of fun, therapeutic activities designed to help children cope with the feelings stirred by such injuries.
In the past three years, the program has helped more than 1,000 children and teens in locations ranging from Texas to Florida. It is one of several nonprofit efforts that have cropped up to aid families of wounded veterans.
"Kids are experiencing these grown-up problems and they don't have the ability to understand it or process it," says Sarah Balint Bravo, a play therapist who cofounded Camp COPE. The acronym stands for courage, optimism, patience, and encouragement – the qualities that the program aims to foster with its unique curriculum for the children of injured or deployed service members.
The small nonprofit in Dallas is a labor of love that Ms. Bravo and cofounder Elizabeth Reep pursue outside their regular jobs. The idea came to Ms. Reep, a clinical social worker, after she saw the toll her husband's war injuries took on her two young stepsons. "I realized there weren't enough services for kids," she says, "and thought that would be one thing I could do to give back as I got through the struggle myself."
Hundreds of thousands of children have waved goodbye to a parent headed off to Iraq or Afghanistan since 9/11. It's estimated that tens of thousands have seen that parent return with injuries or changed behavior attributed to post-traumatic stress disorder. With military and civilian healthcare systems stretched thin, Camp COPE and other nonprofit efforts have been created to fill the gap. In the summers, for instance, overnight camps are organized by the National Military Family Association in Arlington, Va.
"A whole cascade of events develops after an injury ... [and that] needs to be negotiated by the family," says Stephen Cozza, an associate director at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress, based at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md. While many interventions focus on the injured person, he says, there's more recognition now "that these events have powerful impacts on the family."
At 8 a.m. on a Saturday, clouds dull the brown Fort Riley landscape in the Flint Hills of Kansas, where about 15,000 soldiers and their families are based. Inside the school, it's a lively contrast as a big red Elmo greets the stream of 170 children brought here by their parents.