UA’s Operation Military Kids Boosts Resilience

The high-adventure site 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. Photo credit: Operation: Military Kids.
November 19, 2012

Standing on a cross beam 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 that the Arizona Operation: Military Kids program (also known as OMK) builds. OMK is a 4-H program offered through the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Cooperative Extension

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.

About three quarters of the way up the pole, he’d had enough. It was Hunter’s first attempt. He’s is only 9—but determined to try again. Their dad serves in the Air National Guard.

Supporting Military Youth

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.

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 one in their school who has a parent serving in the military.

This award-winning program is based at the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture & 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. This program is funded nationally through all 50 state land grant colleges by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense and Department of Army.

Building Resilience & Life Skills

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, according to Teresa Noon, who heads Arizona Operation: Military Kids. She’s been the sole staff since the UA program began in 2005.

Lots of these life skills are integrated into the high ropes adventure events.

“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 all over the world. “I got over lots of different fears—and dealing with being a military kid. It’s a great experience.”

More Confident to Try New Things

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 high-adventure site 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. Kids get plenty of encouragement:

  • “Show your daddy how cool you are.”

  • “Push yourself up with those good strong legs.”

  • “Don’t stop now – you’re so close.”

  • “Reach for it.”

  • “Good job buddy.”

“I Got A Lot Stronger Through This”

Ninth grade student Kalani Awana first encountered Arizona Operation: Military Kids 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, Arizona. 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 these 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.

OMK engages kids through a network of free programs over the state. They learn by doing. And they have fun—which is really important.

No Longer Going It Alone

“These kids are under a lot of stress,” Noon 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 hear world news reports and worry. These are big challenges for anyone—but especially youngsters. Through OMK they come together with other kids facing similar circumstances and challenges. They no longer feel they’re going it alone.

These kids 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. 

2012 National Service Impact Award

Arizona’s Operation: Military Kids 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 OMK kid made a video about his high ropes adventure. His mom Skyped it oversees. 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.

For more information, visit Operation Military Kids on the Cooperative Extension website.

Learn more about Arizona 4-H.