ANACORTES — For one hour every Tuesday afternoon, a group of mostly first- through third-grade students at Mount Erie Elementary School meets, sometimes sitting in a group on the floor, sometimes at a cluster of desks in the middle of the room.

Sometimes the students color or play games, but there’s one thing they always do: they talk.

These kids are in a unique situation that not all of their peers can relate to — at least one of their parents is in the military, and has been or will be deployed.

“I think the military kids don’t always know who each other (are),” said Stacey Estenson, school counselor at Mount Erie. “I think it’s really good for kids to sort of know who each other are and that they can support each other.”

For eight weeks, 18 youngsters at Mount Erie meet as part of a deployment support group, a collaborative partnership between Naval Air Station Whidbey Island (NASWI) and school districts intended to give children extra support for what is otherwise a difficult time having a parent leave home.

“It’s a transition when they leave,” Estenson said. “And it’s a huge transition when they come home.”

Sometimes, the kids say in their group meeting, they feel sad. Sometimes they’re scared, or worried. And sometimes they’re happy, especially when dad comes home and brings presents.

“We’re sad, but we’re also very proud,” Jim Reynolds, work and family life consultant at The Fleet and Family Support Center at NASWI, sums up for the group.

The base has been sponsoring groups like this for five years, he said, and Reynolds has been a part of them for three. Island View Elementary, also in Anacortes, and several schools in Oak Harbor also have support groups.

The theory, Reynolds said, is that by helping kids cope, you can help the families cope. And by helping the families, you can help the service members cope.

“If we don’t take care of our guys’ families, then our guys are going to be hurting,” Reynolds said. “And if our guys are hurting, we’re not going to be able to get the job done.”

This is the second year the Anacortes School District has had such support groups, which are completely voluntary for students and parents. This group, with more than a dozen students, is the largest Estenson or Reynolds has seen in awhile, they said. As long as the need is there, Estenson said, the group will meet.

“I think it makes the kids feel proud, too,” Estenson said. “Super, super proud of their parents.”

Their lives change so quickly, Reynolds said, that to the kids, what is actually a six-week or six-month deployment can feel like six years.

“These guys live entire lifetimes in each deployment,” Reynolds said. “The kids don’t know how long it is, but it’s long.”

One activity has the kids attempting to explain their emotions by coloring them on a paper cut-out shaped like a person. Wherever they feel sad, Reynolds said, draw how sad feels.

Six-year-old Ally Baker said she feels a lot of mixed emotions when her dad is on deployment.

“I’m happy in my head, and I’m sad in my heart sometimes, not always,” she said as she colored her cut-out. In front of her sits her folded paper name tag, reading “I love you daddy” on the back.

“What we’re trying to do is increase resiliency for these kids,” Reynolds said, who served in the Navy for 30 years.

NASWI’s Fleet and Family Support Center offers a variety of additional services for families with one or more member enlisted or deployed, including counseling, deployment support, personal financial management, career counseling, parenting classes and couples classes, said Brenda Kovach, NASWI school liaison officer.

“Even if you think your family is functioning great, it’s just the betterment of life,” Reynolds said.

To find out more, call 360-257-6289 or visit www.navylifepnw.com, which also helps families served by Naval Station Everett.

— Reporter Kera Wanielista: 360-416-2141, kwanielista@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kera_SVH, Facebook.com/KeraReports

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