“Operation Big” matches adult volunteers with children ages 9 to 15 of deployed or returning active duty military families, including those serving in the Reserves and National Guard. The program also accepts children with a parent who was wounded or killed while on active duty.
Applications must be turned in by July 31.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Alabama is one of 21 agencies nationally to receive a portion of a $3 million grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to operate the program, which will provide 70 children in northeast Alabama with one-on-one mentoring.
The program is needed, said Teresa Johnson, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Alabama, because children with parents serving overseas, or with parents who have recently returned, are under higher levels of stress. Military parents themselves often need help readjusting to the normality of returning home, Johnson said.
“There’s a huge transition when the soldiers come home,” Johnson said by phone Thursday. “It’s hard to just fit right back in. Our program provides that little bit of respite time for the parents who are coming back.”
Children from active-duty military families are 64 percent more likely to have higher levels of anxiety and stress, according to a 2010 study by the Department of Defense. Children experience stress before, during and after a parent’s deployment, according to another 2010 study by the Rand Corporation.
It’s a problem the U.S. military is actively addressing. Psychologists at Defense Department’s National Center for Telehealth and Technology used the Rand study as research when they designed a website for children of military families, according to a press release from the U.S. Department of Defense.
“So many changes occur during deployment for the kids and parents,” the press release quoted Dr. Kelly Blasko, lead psychologist on the website project as saying.
“When they come home, just getting back to the family routine gets very difficult and even more difficult if there’s been post-traumatic stress disorder or some type of problem that results from deployment.”
According to the press release, Militarykidsconnect.org allows children to learn more about deployment, share their feelings and learn coping skills.
Johnson hopes that Operation Big will have equally positive effects for children in Northeast Alabama. To achieve that goal, Johnson said, volunteers are carefully selected, screened and trained before they are allowed to take part in the program.
While they aren’t meant to replace a parent, the mentors do have a positive impact on the lives of their “little” sister or “little” brother, Johnson said. Through various outings such as skating, bowling, horseback riding, swimming and fishing, the program aims to give the children something fun to do, and their caregivers a respite.
“It is great fun, and the mentors really enlarge the world for the children,” Johnson said.
To enroll in the program, military families who reside in Calhoun and Talladega counties should call Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Alabama at 256- 241-3525. For those living in Etowah, Cherokee, and DeKalb counties, call 256-546-5079.
Star staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563 or on Twitter @burkhalter_star.