Standing on a crossbeam 40 feet above ground was scary enough for a girl who’s terrified of heights. But to lean back and step off – trusting the harness and the spotter below to keep the line taut and lower her safely – that took courage.
That’s the kind of trust and confidence the Arizona Operation: Military Kids, or Arizona OMK, program builds.
Since 2005, thousands of children of military reservists in all 15 counties have participated in Arizona OMK. Unlike kids on military bases, who share the experience when their parents ship out, children of reservists may be the only ones in their schools who have parents serving in the military.
The award-winning program is based at the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and implemented through UA Cooperative Extension and affiliated 4-H Youth Development programs across the state, with a network of nonprofit organizations and volunteers. The program is funded nationally through land-grant colleges by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense and Department of Army.
Arizona OMK is all about building resilience and life skills for military youth from kindergarten through high school. The experiences support team building, communication and problem-solving skills, how to adapt to change, build self-esteem and foster responsible citizenship, said Teresa Noon, who heads Arizona OMK. She’s been the sole staff member since the UA program began.
Lots of life skills are integrated into high-ropes adventure events.
The first time Sydney Cope climbed to new heights, she was shaking and terrified. Two years later, the high school sophomore scampered up the pole with confidence. “You go, monkey,” her mother cheered. Then she stood high and alone on the beam for a very, very long time – waiting for her little brother to climb up and join her.
The high-ropes adventure race is one of many experiences designed to support geographically dispersed military youth throughout Arizona during all stages of a family member’s deployment.
“This is fabulous,” Cope said. “It helped me with my fear of heights, my leadership roles and being more social.” She’s participated in numerous OMK camps in Arizona – plus one in Georgia where she made friends from all over the world. “I got over lots of different fears – and dealing with being a military kid. It’s a great experience.”
Her mother, Kristi DeBaun, said, “She was deathly afraid of heights. Now she has more of a sense of adventure. She’s more willing and more confident to try new things.” She added, “My son watched a couple of years ago but he wasn’t old enough. He’s been looking forward to doing this ever since.”
The Pima County 4-H high ropes course along the Santa Cruz River near I-10 and Prince Road in Tucson is a towering silhouette of swinging ropes, ladders, tires and poles to climb, with overhanging obstacles, cross beams, trapezes and a zip line.
Ninth grade student Kalani Awana first encountered Arizona OMK four years ago. He’s learned how to do audio podcasts, conduct radio-style interviews and to create videos. He’s gone to day camps and the week-long YMCA camp in Oracle, Ariz. several times. He’s also participated in high ropes adventure races, including jumping off the high beam to grab the trapeze bar. “I got a lot stronger through this,” he said. “It’s really fun.”
He’s learned a lot through skill-building experiences. So what’s next? Could he step up to be a youth leader? ”I could do that – yeah for sure,” he said, nodding confidently. His dad is former military and his mom is active now. Awana hopes to join the Navy.
Arizona OMK engages kids through a network of free programs over the state. They learn by doing. And they have fun, which Noon says is really important.
“These kids are under a lot of stress,” Noon said.
She said they may be dealing with additional responsibilities – like caring for young siblings or taking them to school instead of playing sports. They might be trying to fill the role of the absent parent. They might hear world news reports and worry. These are big challenges for anyone – but especially youngsters, Noon said. Through Arizona OMK they come together with other kids facing similar circumstances and challenges so they no longer feel they’re going it alone.
The kids in the program learn about gardening and cooking. They build robots and make podcasts to share their personal stories – sometimes with a relative who’s deployed. They take part in simulated deployments where they sleep over, eat rations and mock parachute from a C-130 transport aircraft. They come to the UA for Career Pathfinders Summer Camp that puts them through the rigors not of boot camp but of college life. They stay in dorms, eat at the UA student union, tour science labs. Every hour there’s a different topic – just like classroom clockwork.
Arizona OMK received the 2012 National Service Impact Award from the Corporation of National and Community Services. The award was presented at the National Conference on Volunteering Service this summer.
“Many services exist for veterans and military spouses,” Noon said, “but it’s crucial that proper resources are provided for military kids so they can thrive and be resilient under these sometimes challenging circumstances.”
There are wonderful moments. One of Noon’s favorites was when an Arizona OMK kid made a video about his high ropes adventure. His mom Skyped it overseas. The same day his dad replied, “I’m so proud of you.” When he returned, father and son went back and did the course together.