4-H'ers create bonds through Operation Military Kids

JACKSON -- Alexi Schafer giggled as she twirled the handle on the foosball table and the ball went racing for the end pocket Sunday afternoon at the National Guard Armory in Jackson.

JACKSON -- Alexi Schafer giggled as she twirled the handle on the foosball table and the ball went racing for the end pocket Sunday afternoon at the National Guard Armory in Jackson.

Schafer was one of nearly a dozen children enjoying games and crafts with 4-H Ambassadors and leaders as the Jackson-Fairmont National Guard Unit's Family Readiness Group (FRG) took part in its monthly meeting just a couple of doors away.

Since December 2005, 4-H'ers from Jackson and Martin counties have provided child care services for the FRG as part of Operation Military Kids. Statewide, there are more than 20 county 4-H groups volunteering their time to children whose moms or dads are serving in Iraq.

"We provide activities -- games, songs and crafts -- to keep them busy while their families are in meetings," said Kia Harries, Regional Extension Educator in 4-H, as she watched over children playing at the foosball and pool tables Sunday. The FRG rotates each month between the Fairmont Armory and the Jackson Armory and, depending on where they are meeting, 4-H groups from the host county are in charge of organizing activities for the two-hour session.

"Usually, we get about half a dozen 4-H ambassadors to help," said Harries, adding that they average 10 to 15 children per month. The 4-H groups took part in trainings on how to work with military children prior to starting their Operation Military Kids projects.


"It's been a new audience for us, which has been part of the fun," said Harries, who works primarily with 4-H'ers -- from five-year-old Cloverbuds to 19-year-old, soon-to-be 4-H graduates. "It's a new partnership."

Last month, the youngest children taking part in the group were 9-month-old twins, while the oldest were about age 10.

"It's been an incredible blessing for all of us," said Lori Lanphere Kruger, coordinator of the Jackson Fairmont FRG. She has three young children taking part in the Operation Military Kids programming each month.

"They completely take care of the program, so it's one less thing for me to organize," said Kruger. She said the same group of 4-H Ambassadors helps each month, making the children feel more secure as they get to know one another, as well as other children in the group.

"They get to talk to each other about their military heroes, and we can just have our own time together," Kruger said. On Sunday, the FRG hosted a counselor to help spouses work through their emotions resulting from the recent news their troops will have a delayed homecoming. Knowing that their children are being well cared for just a couple of doors away offers great peace of mind for the spouses taking part in the programs.

And, for little children who don't always like to sit still, Operation Military Kids provides them with the opportunity to play with other kids and make crafts. This month, the group made finger puppet Valentines, animal magnets and picture frames.

Harries said the program has been good not only for the spouses and children of deployed soldiers, but also for the 4-H'ers.

"Personally, it's a huge value," she said. "It's just something I can do and contribute. You feel you're doing something in support of the young people."


Jenna Vachuska, one of the 4-H Ambassadors who helps with Operation Military Kids in Jackson County, said she enjoys spending time with the children.

"I think it's important -- especially for the older (4-H'ers) to be able to help the younger kids and to know how good it feels to be here," Vachuska said.

Harries said the two county 4-H groups will continue to provide Operation Military Kids programming until the Guard soldiers come home, and said they are hoping to plan a day camp for the children involved sometime early this summer.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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