By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 10, 2007 - Military children missing deployed parents can take comfort in quilts the Armed Services YMCA's Operation Kid Comfort program is making especially for them.
The Armed Services YMCA is a member of America Supports You, a Defense Department program highlighting the ways Americans and the corporate sector are supporting the troops.
"The children don't know that (parents) are deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq or in a more dangerous situation than any other," Susan Simms, the organization's manager for branch and corporate relations, said. "They just know Mom or Dad is gone."
To help them deal with the separation, Operation Kid Comfort participants create quilts unique to each child 5 and under, Simms said. The quilts include family photos, the child's name and the parent's service seal. Older children receive a small pillow with the same photos.
Since the program began on Fort Bragg, N.C., in 2003, Simms estimated, close to 3,000 children have received quilts with a card explaining their significance.
"The card is addressed to the child, and it's the quilt talking to the child," she said. "It's telling the child that this quilt is especially for him or her, and it's OK to hurt, it's OK to cry, (and) the quilt is there to give them a little bit of comfort."
Simms said she thought it was a good way of trying to get across the purpose of the quilt. Each card is signed, "Your Buddy K.C.," initials that stand for Kid Comfort.
The quilts have benefits beyond being a cool gift, however, Dr. Sarah Hansel, a Department of Veterans Affairs staff psychologist, said.
"Blankets and stuffed animals have long been associated with kids as transitional objects, things they hold on to specifically for comfort," Hansel, whose husband retired from the Navy after 24 years, said. "I think that's one of the reasons why the program is so beautifully named.
"Kid Comfort is precisely what it does," she said.
A child's response to a parent's absence can manifest itself in many ways. Hansel said children's responses could include bed-wetting and exhibiting more challenging behavior. Those symptoms often improve significantly when the kids have something to latch onto that represents Mom or Dad to them.
"The little quilts are something tangible that they can grab hold of and take with them and wrap up in, be surrounded by parents' love," she said. "Those are all real, positive things that are likely to have solid impact, and families can see the difference in behavior."
Hansel believes so strongly in the program's positive impact that she has involved her quilting group, Stars and Stripes Quilters of Fort McHenry. Since the group started quilting for Operation Kid Comfort in July, it has completed more than 80 of the 40-inch-square quilts, she said.
Hansel said she got involved in the program as an opportunity to participate in a primary prevention project.
"We know that there's a lot of research evidence that shows that early parental separation is a risk factor for depression in adulthood," she said.
She stressed that such separation is only a risk factor and not a determining factor. "That's part of why I got involved, was to really push for something that has the potential of having a long-term impact in making up for some of the harm that war does that we never actually ... see."
Hansel added that the children aren't the only ones who find a measure of comfort in the quilt. All those involved benefit, she said and cited research that finds those who witness or engage in an act of kindness also feel better.
"This is a great project that spreads blessings on so many levels," Hansel said. "It's something that's just got kind of a no-lose component."
Those blessings have spread from Fort Bragg to Fort Riley, Kansas, Fort Drum, N.Y. and to Armed Services YMCAs in San Diego and Alaska, Simms said. The program is expected to be introduced at Fort Stewart, Ga., and Fort Carson, Colo., by fall.
The ASYMCA's most recent addition of the Operation Kid Comfort program is at Fort Belvoir, Va. That program is a joint effort between the ASYMCA and Fort Belvoir Child and Youth Services.
It was launched March 29 in observation he Month of the Military Child, which is April, Simms said. The event included a spaghetti supper where military children were presented with an Operation Kid Comfort quilt or pillow.
Charlize Reagin, 1, was one of the children to receive an Operation Kid Comfort quilt at the Fort Belvoir event. Her older sister, Eliana, 9, who couldn't be there, received a pillow.
Their dad, Army Staff Sgt. Josh Reagin, has been deployed to Iraq since Dec. 31 and is not due back until January 2008. His wife, Melanie, accepted a quilt and pillow personalized with family photos, including one of Josh riding a horse in front of the caisson at the funeral of President Ronald Regan.
"The quilt and pillow will comfort them a lot," said Melanie, as Charlize pointed to a photo of Josh on the quilt. "Da Da," she said.
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