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Camp C.O.P.E.: Helping Kids from Military Families

As Elizabeth Reep helped her stepsons deal with their soldier dad's deployment and war injuries, she realized there were thousands of other kids just like them. So she created Camp C.O.P.E., where kids help one another heal.
Getting Deployed

The boys and girls in a Killeen, Texas, classroom were busy putting pen to paper, but their task had nothing to do with school. They were military kids, gathered on a hot September Saturday to write encouraging notes to children with parents serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Dear Son or Daughter of a Deployed Parent," wrote one 13-year-old. "I know how you feel. When I found out that my dad was going to Iraq, I cried all night. It changed my life. When you are mad, sad or depressed, please remember that you are not alone."

Letter writing is just one of the many activities at Camp C.O.P.E., a free support program for children of deployed, injured and fallen U.S. service members. Designed for kids ages 4 through 18, Camp C.O.P.E. was cofounded in 2005 by Elizabeth Reep, 42, a social worker from Grand Prairie, Texas, and wife of wounded Iraq war veteran Tracy Reep, 43.

The catalyst was Tracy's deployment in April 2003, when Elizabeth's stepsons Hunter and Austin were 8 and 10. "We said goodbye, then stood waving our flags as the bus drove away, not knowing whether we'd see him again," remembers Elizabeth. As a counselor, she knew it was key to keep the mood as positive as possible. So off they went to a local Build-A-Bear store, where each designed a soldier bear in Dad's honor. That night Elizabeth called the first Operation Support Tracy Reep bear battalion meeting to order.

"Well, soldiers," said Elizabeth, speaking through her bear, "Dad shipped off today. And, actually, I'm a little relieved. Now we can start the countdown to his return." The meetings became a ritual whenever the boys were with her, typically on Wednesdays and every other weekend. "Austin and Hunter were able to verbalize their feelings through the bears, asking questions they might have been afraid to bring up otherwise," she says. Elizabeth would respond as best she could, letting them know it was okay to feel confused, afraid and angry. "People tell military children that their parent is a hero, but kids don't always see it like that," says Elizabeth. "Sure they're proud, but they're also mad that mom or dad is not at their soccer game."

As the months passed, Elizabeth and the boys tackled new projects: hanging yellow ribbons in the front yard, snapping pictures of the Halloween pumpkins they carved. Everyone looked forward to Christmas, when Tracy was scheduled for a leave. Unfortunately his convoy was ambushed on Veteran's Day in 2003. Tracy lost an eye and two fingers in the explosion. He was sent to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where he underwent 25 surgeries and spent eight long months recovering.