Deployment is a part of military family life, but it never gets easier to see your mom or dad wave goodbye. According to a 2010 brief by the National Center for Children in Poverty, “wartime parental deployments can be one of the most stressful events of a child’s life,” leading to inappropriate behaviors, changes in school performance and other symptoms consistent with depression.
It helps to be around other kids and adults who know what that feels like, which is why the staff of Idaho’s Mountain Home Air Force Base (AFB) afterschool and youth programs take special care to keep things consistent.
“It’s their ‘normal’ place — regardless if Mom or Dad is gone,” said Lissa Hall, director, Youth Programs at Mountain Home AFB. “Deployment hits everyone differently,” she continued. “For the younger kids, it can be confusing. They don’t understand why Dad or Mom isn’t there for their birthday. Sometimes they just feel the stress of the other parent who is left to handle the whole load. But as they get older, they begin to understand the dangers of deployment. They cue into the stress it can cause at home, and they’re often asked to take on more responsibility with younger siblings.
“Likewise, when a parent returns home from deployment, the family has to find a new normal. The absent parent has to reintegrate. That can be stressful, too. Rules have shifted, so have responsibilities,” she said.
That’s why Hall and her staff at the base’s youth center work hard to keep afterschool and summer activities predictable, engaging and fun.
“It’s a place where kids can just be kids,” she said. “It helps ground them. When our kids get the chance to come to the youth center, they know they probably aren’t the only ones who currently have a parent deployed. Or at the very least, there are other kids that totally understand what it’s like to have to step up with younger siblings or help with extra chores.
“I think the biggest asset that afterschool and youth programs give to the military community is consistency,” she added.
When Erika Mulhall and her husband, parents to four boys, were transferred to Mountain Home AFB, the afterschool program was a real help as the family settled in.
“We were new, we didn’t know anybody, but the staff at the youth center was so welcoming,” she said. “They really cater to the needs of kids. It was June, so our twins started with the summer program. They’ve been attending the afterschool program ever since,” she said.
Part of a seamless set of youth development activities for kids ages 6 to 18, the base’s afterschool program is offered along with a year-round sports program; a variety of clubs focusing on service, physical fitness and leadership training; and a range of evening activities for families and older youth.
“Just when I think I know my boys, they surprise me with the things they’re interested in,” said Mulhall of her twins. “The first year, they really loved the afterschool robotics club. They learned to work as a team, and one of my twins really loved the programming end of it — the electronics and computer-related activities.”
The Mountain Home AFB youth center has the only nationally accredited afterschool program in Idaho. While Hall and her staff take pride in offering a high-quality program that emphasizes science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM), she also believes that both military and non-military afterschool programs fill a critical need for families because they offer students a safe and supervised place where they can explore their interests, discover their talents and just have some fun.
“Our main focus is on kids, but it’s really about family too,” she said. “We try to direct our parents to classes or other sources of support when they need it. It helps that the majority of people who work here are spouses of military personnel — so they get it. And when we have a mom deployed — and a dad who just can’t handle his little girl’s hair — we’ve got that, too.”
“They really keep them busy,” said Mulhall of the afterschool program. “Since my husband and I are both on active duty, we don’t have a lot of time to explore the area with the kids. But through the afterschool program, they’ve been able to visit the zoo and the local botanical garden, and they’ve gone bowling. They really enjoy that. Miss Hall and her staff are amazing.”
In 2016, as a result of her efforts to develop high-quality afterschool and youth programs for military families, Hall was selected by the Afterschool Alliance, a long-time Mott grantee, to serve as a national Afterschool Ambassador.
“After working in the field for 30 years — 15 of those with Mountain Home — I understood the impact that these programs have on kids. But my belief in the power and importance of afterschool programs for all youth was reaffirmed when I served as an ambassador,” she said. “Serving in that role was a great opportunity for me to gain an even greater understanding of how afterschool programs have an impact on today’s society.”
The experience also left her even more determined to provide as high-quality a program as possible.
“We’re very fortunate that support for the afterschool program, as well as all the activities offered through Mountain Home’s youth center, is provided through the federal military budget.” Through partnerships with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and 4-H — both of which, Hall says, provide “awesome curricula,” the program is eligible to apply for other grants that enable the staff to provide even more opportunities for kids.
“We also partner with the local schools and our Military Family Life Consultants as much as possible to help kids through whatever transition they’re going through — [whether] they just moved here, or they’re getting ready to leave to a new base, or a parent is deploying, just coming back from deployment, or sometimes, unfortunately, when a parent comes back with PTSD or an injury,” she said.
For the Mulhalls — who later this year will be dealing with a deployment and the burden that will place on the remaining spouse — the afterschool, summer and youth programs are enormously helpful in terms of keeping their boys busy, active and safe.
“It can be difficult, and the twins will have more added to their plate,” said Erika Mulhall, of her two oldest children.
“But we don’t want them sitting around the house all the time, playing video games and letting their brains turn to mush. We want them to be able to connect with their friends and just be kids. We’ve talked about it, and we already have a plan in place to make sure they can keep attending the youth programs at the base.”