The first two camps, all free to guard families and sponsored by Lutheran Social Services, started this week in Moorhead and Baxter. About 20 preteen kids gathered at a Moorhead church for a week of fun activities and some subtle messages about how to prepare for a soldier coming home.
The concept has been used before; in fact Camp Noah was created to help kids after major flooding in Minnesota a decade ago. The program has been used across the country to help kids recover from natural disaster.
Jim Gambone developed a new curriculum for this camp, called A Soldier's Coming Home. It's targeted to work with pre-teen kids, but children of all ages are accepted. Gambone says many children of soldiers experienced stress as they adapted to a parent going off to war. Now they need to prepare for the reunion.
"The kids are worried, a lot of them are anxious just about the reunion, and then they are upset because they should be happy about the reunion," Gambone says. "But if they're feeling anxious about it that's not the right feeling perhaps. So what we do in Camp Noah is, we tell them whatever feelings they're having are okay."
Detroit Lakes resident Kelly Heid brought two of her four children to Camp Noah. Sidney is five, Isaac is six. They have two younger siblings at home. The two Heid kids are clear about the thing miss the most about their dad being away.
"I miss him because when I was sad he would walk over to me and snuggle me," Isaac says.
His sister Sydney adds, "I miss him because all the time he would snuggle us in bed before we went to sleep."
Kelly Heid says the camp is a chance for her children to spend time with other kids who are experiencing the same worry and loneliness. She says it's been hard for them to understand why their dad is the only one who's gone away.
"We were getting ready for back to school, my son was shopping at Target, and there was another little boy there," Heid recalls. "They were talking about kindergarten and he (Isaac) said, 'You want to hear something awful? My dad is going to miss every day of kindergarten. When is your dad leaving?' And this other kid looked at him like, 'What do you mean? My dad's not going anywhere.' My son was like, 'If my dad has to go, your dad has to go. All dads are going.'"
Kelly Heid says when her husband came home on a two-week leave, the family got a taste of how different life will be when he returns from Iraq. Everyone else had taken over his household tasks and Denver Heid was unsure where he fit into the family he'd left behind.
Jim Gambone says as he prepared this version of Camp Noah, he interviewed many military families. He learned it's important to lower the expectations children might have about their parents return.
"I had one mother tell me the kids were so excited about their dad coming home and they had made plans for the first two weeks; what they were going to do with their dad," Gambone says. "When their dad came home he slept for a month. They're focused on the reunion and we're going to try to make them think about the fact that this is going to be a long-term process. It's not going to be over in the first six months. We're talking about a one to two year process before a new normal is established for those families and their lives."
Gambone says the camp will give the kids a better understanding of what might happen as they get reacquainted with a parent. It will also build relationships with adults that can help provide support for the children during what might be a difficult transition.