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TAPS helps military families

Technical Sergeant Samantha J. Clarke, 119th Services Flight, gives Laura Hilton a piggy-back ride at TAPS Good Grief Camp.  One goal of the camp is to do something with the children that they can no longer do with the lost loved one.  Laura's father, U.S. Navy LT. Lawrence Hilton, died July 22, 2004.  (Courtesy photo/William A. Pratt)

Technical Sergeant Samantha J. Clarke, 119th Services Flight, gives Laura Hilton a piggy-back ride at TAPS Good Grief Camp. One goal of the camp is to do something with the children that they can no longer do with the lost loved one. Laura's father, U.S. Navy LT. Lawrence Hilton, died July 22, 2004. (Courtesy photo/William A. Pratt)

Senior Airman Mandi R. Hagen, 119th Services Flight, works on a craft project with Adela Storey as part of TAPS Good Grief Camp.  Adela's father, Staff Sgt. Clint J. Storey, was killed in action August 4, 2006 in Iraq.  (Courtesy photo/William A. Pratt)

Senior Airman Mandi R. Hagen, 119th Services Flight, works on a craft project with Adela Storey as part of TAPS Good Grief Camp. Adela's father, Staff Sgt. Clint J. Storey, was killed in action August 4, 2006 in Iraq. (Courtesy photo/William A. Pratt)

FARGO, N.D. -- Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) is a non-profit organization that assists military families who have lost loved ones. Through peer support, mentoring, and other programs offered, the TAPS seminar and TAPS' Good Grief Camp, held on Memorial Day weekend in Alexandria, Va., allowed participants the opportunity to speak from their hearts.
 
Senior Airman Mandi R. Hagen, 119th Services Flight, and I knew that we wanted to help, even though it would be difficult emotionally. We volunteered as Good Grief Camp counselors for children ages four to six. The camp offers age-appropriate activities for the kids to show them how to deal with grief and the stress that comes with it. 

When we arrived, TAPS had a training session for all of the volunteers. We attended lectures and classes where we learned about children and grief. We heard what to expect and what to do in certain circumstances. The following day, we were each assigned to a camper for one-on-one mentoring. 

The weekend was full of pre-planned events. We participated in a group circle time at least once a day where kids introduced themselves, and shared something about their loved ones who had passed. 

The two little girls we mentored were reluctant to speak until they heard the other children talk about the relatives they had lost. One of the things we learned was how much the children knew about the death of their family members. Some of them just said that their loved one was in heaven. Due to their lack of emotion, we weren't sure they had a true understanding of death. 

One little boy showed us a picture of his dad on a button and said, "This is my daddy. I am so proud of him, and this picture is all I have left of him." It just made our hearts sink. 

Volunteering for the camp was a very humbling and emotionally demanding experience for campers and volunteers alike. It was very difficult to watch the children grieve, knowing that they will never see their departed loved ones again. Listening to the children talk about their lost relative was a moving experience that some found too emotional to deal with. 

Despite the emotional difficulties, we did our best to focus on making happy memories. Our days at camp included arts and crafts, like kids tracing their hands for cut-outs, and writing something about their loved ones on each cut-out. The crafted hands were then made into a wreath that was placed at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Memorial Day. 

Another activity the children participated in, to help them emotionally, was writing letters to the loved ones they've lost, attaching those letters to balloons, and releasing the balloons at a park. It was an inspiring event, and appeared to be a good experience for all of the participants. 

Washington Reagan International Airport officials, in D.C., assisted TAPS by holding all air traffic just for the balloon release. 

Our group toured the Caisson at Fort Myer, Va., and learned about the importance of the honor guard and the horses there. 

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey performed a mini-circus, and taught the kids some circus stunts for a show the campers put on for their families at the camp's closing ceremony. 

The weekend was all about memories. That's all these kids have left. Some of them have never met the loved ones they've lost and will only know them through stories told to them by surviving family members. Others will do what they can to keep those memories alive as the years pass. 

TAPS and it's Good Grief Camp truly touches the heart of everyone involved. Hopefully, the experiences received at camp will generate happy memories for the children. They are happy memories for us. 

Sharing our time and love with children in need was one of the most heartfelt gifts we have ever given - and received. 

For more on TAPS, please go to www.taps.org. 

(Senior Amn. Mandi R. Hagen, 119th Services Flight, contributed to this story)