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THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 26, 2015  06:56:59 PM

Kids learn to cope with grief

Email   Print   Share By Heather Graham-Ashley, Sentinel News Editor
July 25, 2013 | Living
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Graphic Illustration by Ila Stuart, Sentinel Graphic Designer
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Isaiah Morales gets a lift from his mentor, Sgt. Shaun Miller, Saturday before the balloon release that marks the end of TAPS’ Good Grief Camp. Heather Graham-Ashley, Sentinel News Editor
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Cage Evinger gets help tying on his TAPS bracelet from his mentor Saturday at the end of Good Grief camp. Heather Graham-Ashley, Sentinel News Editor
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Notes help prompt children to discuss their feelings. Heather Graham-Ashley, Sentinel News Editor
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Alexis Hill, 3, decorates her mentor, Taran Champagne, during an introductory activity at Fort Hood’s TAPS Good Grief Camp Friday. Heather Graham-Ashley, Sentinel News Editor
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C.L. “Flash” Fry builds an airplane while talking with his mentor during introductory events Friday at the start of this year’s TAPS Good Grief Camp at Fort Hood. Fry was one of 150 children of fallen service members to attend this year’s camp. Heather Graham-Ashley, Sentinel News Editor
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As his mentor Michael Reid looks on, Jake Evinger, 13, talks about his father, Bear Evinger, who died two years ago from a TBI-related seizure. His father was struck while riding his bicycle by a drunk driver. Jake said his father had always hoped to be able to ride his bike again, but was not able to before his death. Heather Graham-Ashley, Sentinel News Editor
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Fort Hood Garrison Commander Col. Matt Elledge welcomes Families to TAPS Good Grief Camp and Regional Seminar Friday at the Spirit of Fort Hood Chapel. The annual event hosts Families of fallen service members for a weekend. Heather Graham-Ashley, Sentinel News Editor
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Joshua Lutz, 10, shows off a paper airplane he built during Good Grief Camp at Fort Hood. This was Joshua’s fourth year to attend Good Grief Camp. He said the best part of the camp is “everything.” Heather Graham-Ashley, Sentinel News Editor
Jake Evinger, 13, does not want extra attention or for people to treat him like he’s special, so he does not usually talk about his father.

That changes when he comes to Good Grief Camp and spends time with other youth who know the loss of a loved one.

Evinger, his two younger brothers and mother, came to Fort Hood Friday-Sunday to be among peers and remember in a good way a shared loss at Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors’ Good Grief Camp and Regional Seminar.

Hosted by TAPS, a national non-profit organization designed to assist surviving Family members of fallen service members regardless of the manner of their death, the annual camp and regional seminar drew 150 children and 275 adults this year for a weekend of age- and circumstance-appropriate activities designed to help cope with the loss of a loved one in a positive way.

“The event is slowly growing each year,” Tina Saari, director, regional seminars and military installations, said.

During the weekend, adults attend seminars and workshops catered to their needs and children attend Good Grief Camp to help them work out their own often conflicted feelings, share stories about their loved ones and learn positive ways to cope with their feelings.

For Jake and many other children, it’s a place where they can be normal.

“It’s about knowing you’re not alone,” Jake said. “TAPS is an easier place to talk about my dad’s death without having that feeling that I want people to think I’m special. I’d actually rather get less attention.”

A computer whiz that loves video games and comic books and seems wise beyond his years, Jake lost his father, Marine veteran Bear Evinger, in August 2011, to complications from a traumatic brain injury incurred years ago while Bear was in the Marines. While riding his bicycle at Kaneohe Bay Marine Corps Base-Hawaii, Bear was struck by a drunk driver and severely injured.

Children and youth ages 4-17 who lost a service member to accidents, combat, homicide, suicide and other incidents shared their stories at the Good Grief Camp. Regardless of the manner of death, all have experienced a loss. For Jake, that shared experience is what he likes best about coming to TAPS events.

“The best part is the feeling of knowing there are similar people here,” Jake said. “Even if it’s not exactly the same, we still have something in common that will be the same for a very long time.”

Grouped by age, children and youth were led by group facilitators in activities that helped them open up and share while also dealing with the stages of grief.

Saari, who led the 8-10 year-olds, had the children decorate stars dedicated to their hero and share them with the group on the first day. They also smashed Play-doh and tossed wet paper towels at a paper labeled with the words “mad, scared, guilty, sad,” to help release some negative feelings normally associated with grief.

“It helps them get it out, let’s them smash out feelings,” Saari said. “When they are doing this, they get to see the feelings wash out.”

After the smash and toss activities, Saari brought her group inside where they discussed positive ways to manage and cope with those difficult feelings.

“Talk to my Family,” Joshua Lutz, 10, suggested when asked for a way to handle being sad.

Lutz lost his father, Sgt. Tommy Lutz, to cancer. He said he comes to TAPS every year because he loves everything about the camp.

At camp, Lutz, like all attendees, had his Soldier-mentor by his side the entire time.

Mentors – volunteer service members – attend training before the camp, and devote their time exclusively to their assigned child. Saari said the mentors enrich the experience for the youth.

“For this weekend, these kids have an adult’s complete, undivided attention,” she said. “Here, that adult is all about that child.”

Every child has at least one mentor. This year, some children had multiple mentors.

Sage Wagner, 9, said the mentors are her favorite part of the TAPS camp.

“They are fun and funny,” she said. “They’re a little like my dad.”

Spc. Eric Flack, one of Sage’s three mentors, said he volunteered to be a mentor because he likes hanging out with kids and felt this was a good way to help out his fellow service members.

“If it was me, I’d want someone to take care of my kids,” Flack said. “It’s another way to take care of our brothers- and sisters-in-arms.”

Some mentors found personal common-ground with their campers.

Michael Reid, who was partnered with Jake, also lost his own father while he was young. The two bonded tightly over their shared experiences.

“I’ve been in the position he’s in. My dad passed away when I was young, so we relate well with each other,” Reid said. “I know it’s taken a lot to go through it and overcome. I just think the world about him.”

Jake said their shared experiences helped the two bond quickly.

“It was easier from the start to talk about stuff,” Jake said.

This was Jake’s second year at the Fort Hood TAPS event and he said he has learned a lot from the events.

“I learned to talk about my grief much easier,” Jake said. “I’ve also learned to make friends better.”

He still misses his father, as the other youth miss their fallen service member.

“I miss talking to my dad the most,” Jake said. “We had long talks about the things I was doing and the things he did as a kid.”

The father and son pair shared a love of video games, comic books and old television programs, such as the Twilight Zone.

After Jake told Reid that he enjoyed games, his mentor brought Jake two video games as a gesture of their time at camp.

There was another present Reid presented to Jake that the youth clasped onto tightly. A pipe cleaner shaped into a bicycle stayed close to Jake and he explained its importance.

“My dad was injured while riding his bicycle and he always hoped he could ride a bicycle again,” Jake said.

As the Good Grief Camp was winding down on Saturday afternoon, Jake and Reid sat down to write letters to their fathers.

Those letters were then wrapped up and tied to the string of a balloon.

Campers and their mentors joined the parents and other adults with the same red or blue balloons and released them together into the Central Texas sky.

When asked what they think happens to those balloons and their attached messages, Reid was quick to answer.

“I like to think my dad gets it,” he said.
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