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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.
When he was finally released in July 2004, the family celebrated with a party, but it soon became clear that life was going to be a lot different for a while. "Tracy was angry and frustrated, which is common with veterans," says Elizabeth, who experienced the same behavior with her dad, a Vietnam vet. Tracy had been planning to start a business when he was deployed, and now those plans were derailed. His limited vision left him unable to drive, and he struggled with everyday tasks, like opening jars. He'd fly off the handle over little things. The boys began to founder too. Like many military children, they suffered nightmares, stomachaches, headaches and panic attacks. Their grades went down, and they began acting out in school.
During Tracy's rages, Elizabeth would take Austin and Hunter into another room, explain that he wasn't mad at them and encourage the boys to brainstorm more constructive ways to express anger. She felt fortunate to have the necessary training and expertise to help. But she worried about the hundreds of thousands of other military children experiencing similar ordeals at home. While there were support options for service members, little was available for their offspring. "We forget that kids serve too," says Elizabeth. "They may not be on the battlefield, but they make an enormous sacrifice for their country. Children need help coping with their emotions, and they need to know that other kids are going through this also. I wondered if there was a way I could help them as well."
The answer came in December 2004. The Reeps were attending the annual Road to Recovery Conference in Orlando sponsored by the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes (CSAH), an organization that provides services for wounded vets and their families. "There were workshops for the grown-ups but nothing specifically for the kids," says Elizabeth. "I figured I could complain or be part of the solution." So she approached the man in charge, told him of her background and offered to develop a youth program for the following year. He promised to consider it if she put together an outline and a budget.
Elizabeth turned to friend and child counselor Sarah Bravo, 32, to design a curriculum. Through crafts, games and small group activities, they'd teach kids of injured military members how to express and manage their feelings. Equally important, they'd offer a chance for kids to bond with peers in similar circumstances. The women named their program Camp C.O.P.E., which stands for Courage, Optimism, Patience and Encouragement. Their proposal was approved, and they were given $1,600 to make it a reality.
Camp C.O.P.E. launched at the 2005 Road to Recovery Conference. Eighty-five kids showed up, including Hunter and Austin. Attendees were split into age-appropriate groups, led by Elizabeth, Sarah and volunteer counselors. Those who came in grumbling and skeptical were quickly drawn in by the fun and games. The Introduce Yourself session featured contests to see which family had moved the most places. Kids blew off steam through yoga-type exercises. In small groups, counselors instructed them to smash flowerpots with hammers to symbolize families shattered by war, write on the broken pieces (how they felt on the inside and a wish for the future on the outside), then glue them back together to represent the resilience of military families.
There were many truly touching moments, says Elizabeth. A 15-year-old girl whose mother had post-traumatic stress disorder realized, "My mom's wounded inside, and that's why she doesn't give me many hugs anymore." A 14-year-old admitted that it sometimes annoyed him to be considered the "man of the house." Austin and Hunter learned that others' dads got angry also. "Over and over, we heard kids say, 'That happens to you too?' " Elizabeth recalls. When the camp ended, they didn't want to leave. "Considering we were competing with Disney World, that seemed pretty remarkable," says Elizabeth.
CSAH sponsored Camp C.O.P.E. for two more years. Then Elizabeth and Sarah began taking their program to military bases nationwide. That meant they had to file for nonprofit status and begin covering costs themselves. So far, they have completed 18 camps, serving about 2,500 children. Parents gratefully report that kids who attend are calmer and have fewer behavioral problems at school. Besides targeting families of injured service members, Camp C.O.P.E. now includes those of deployed and fallen soldiers.
Donations must cover supplies, travel, meals and the small stipends paid to counselors. "It's challenging," admits Elizabeth. "But every time we start worrying about money running out, something comes through." Most recently, they scored $100,000 from Taste of the South, a charitable organization based in Washington, D.C. Camp C.O.P.E. also won $5,000 from Newman's Own and the Fisher House Foundation.
Still, Elizabeth often stays up late applying for grants, because her days are busy—she has a full-time counseling practice and a toddler. (Son Sawyer was born in December 2010.) But her efforts are paying off. Last year Camp C.O.P.E. received a $220,000 grant from the Lynx Foundation in California. The Bob Woodruff Foundation, established by the wounded journalist and his family, has also contributed generously. All money goes toward upcoming camps.
Meanwhile, Camp C.O.P.E. has become a family affair. Tracy, back to work running a medical supply business, organizes golf fundraisers. Hunter and Austin volunteer at camps. Elizabeth and her cofounder, Sarah, both bring along their little ones (and their mothers and nannies) when running an event. "In these families, the need for children's counseling is greater than ever," says Elizabeth. "Still, the strength of the kids just amazes us."
Austin Reep's upbeat outlook was evident in the letter he wrote to a military child at the Killeen, Texas, Camp C.O.P.E. event: "Never blame yourself. Always look forward to tomorrow, 'cause it's another day. No one knows what is ahead, but the sun and moon will always shine. Love is strong and so are you."
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