Stick around the Army long enough and you’re sure to notice two words keep popping up, “resiliency” and “family.” It would be easy for the modern cynic to dismiss them as simply military industrial complex mumbo-jumbo, but those hardened hearts haven’t experienced Fort Hood’s School Aged Care’s after school program. They certainly haven’t set foot in Muskogee SAC where words like “resiliency” and “family” are not only worn on caregiver’s sleeves, they’re demonstrated every single day.
Letitia Lesene is the director of Muskogee SAC, her energetic looks concealing her depth of experience in the field of child care.
“I started in childcare in Yokota, Japan, in the 1980’s. I worked with the childhood development center, so I’ve been with the military over 30 years. I’ve been here (Muskogee) since 2000, and I’ve enjoyed it,” Lesene said.
Lesene holds true to a mantra that’s blazoned on a banner, hanging high above her building’s communal area for all to see, the Six Pillars of Character: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. By leading with these principals, instilling them in the children under her charge, she’s seen with her own eyes the difference it can make.
“Children don’t know how to ask, they just want to take. They get to know other children and they learn how to share,” Letitia explains. “Because a lot of times growing up, children don’t learn how to share. It’s about having good character.”
Looking around Muskogee SAC – it’s hard to find disagreement with Lesene’s assertions. Children play together nicely, regardless of race or gender. In the gym area, they race around playing games and dancing to music, all under the watchful eye of a supervising adult who offers up gentile correction when needed.
The technology area sees three groups of children, two of them playing video games together, cooperatively, no one hogging a controller or criticizing one another for poor play. They’re all failing at beating the game together.
“I assure you they don’t just play games in here,” the technology supervisor said knowingly. “This is a special time. Most of the time the kids are learning robotics or everyone is playing a board game. We try and teach them that there’s more to technology and fun than video games.”
Breezing through the classrooms, there’s a relaxing harmony about it all. Even though the kids are jumbled together from different racial, geographical, and socio-economic backgrounds, a feeling of family permeates the building. Something Anne Harrison, mother of 7-year-old Alexandria and 4-year-old Maya also feels. She said the entirety of Fort Hood’s child and youth services feels more like an extended family, and less an after school program.
“I’m a teacher at Oveta Culp Hobby Elementary School,” Harrison explained. “This allows them to be kids after school, and not have to sit in my classroom and wait for mommy to finish. They also get a snack, so that’s a load off my mind – you know, the list of things I have to worry about because I know when I pick them up, they will have picked up a snack.”
The Harrisons have been using the Great Place’s child and youth services for the last three years. Over that time, a bond formed between her children, the child care providers and herself that would help them all stay afloat in one of their darkest hours.
“Last year, we lost three close family members: we lost their grandfather, their great aunt, and their oldest sister, all within about a six month period,” Harrison revealed. “But it was great because the staff were amazing. My children were coming here every day and that consistency meant a lot because I could focus on our family matters. And I knew that they were getting attended to emotionally as well. They were being supportive.”
Miriam Washington, director of Bronco Youth Center, feels it’s not only a blessing to be able to reach out to those in need, but also a duty.
“Our main focus is to take some of that stress off of the parents and that’s what we’re here for,” she said. “Our mission is to be for the family, the entire family. So while that Soldier’s at work and focusing on the military mission that they’re on, or whatever the situation is, we want to focus on taking care of the family and taking care of the children.”
“The staff here was amazing – I mean they showed up to the funeral. They sent cards over to our house afterward. They were absolutely amazing through all three of those deaths,” Harrison gushed. “The support was beyond … just indescribable.”
What parents might not realize, though, is what their families are receiving is a reinforcement of Army values.
“We offer resiliency, we have resiliency activities that start with the SAC program,” Washington said. “We take them through a series of programs every quarter on how to fight back when something comes in front of you, whether that’s bullying, or things that take place at school or things that take place at home. How do you bounce back? How do you exert that energy into something positive?”
For the children, all these life lessons kind of wash over them – being absorbed without even realizing that these experiences will pay dividends later on in life. It’s something Lesene has seen time and time again.
“It really makes you feel good when you see the children that you’ve had because I tell them, ‘Once you’re in my care, you are mine,’” Lesene said, smiling. “‘Until I give you back to your parents, you are mine.’ So it’s really nice to see them when you go places and they recognize you and then they start bringing their children to SAC.”