Area schools offer military students, families options in times of hardship

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In the last decade, nearly 2 million American military children have been affected by the death, severe injury or deployment of a parent, according to a CNN article published on May 27 by Georgiann Caruso.

This has led to a call by the American Academy of Pediatrics for psychologists and doctors to begin addressing the mental health of children from military families.

Manhattan area schools have responded by setting up a number of programs and resources for children from military families.

Jesi Courser, department head of Social Work for Manhattan-Ogden
USD 383, said all of the schools in USD 383 have programs to help military children.

Courser said some schools, such as Marlatt Elementary School, do groups specifically for military students. In the case of Marlatt Elementary children are grouped based on grade. Marlatt’s program takes place over the lunch hour, allowing military children to eat together and build a community within the school.

“We make it as informal or formal as the kids want it to be,” Courser said. “Sometimes the kids just want it to be like a place where they can just relax with other military kids, and sometimes the kids want to talk about their parents being deployed and what that’s like.”

Courser said the program at Marlatt Elementary is very much led by the children. They never talk about the death and dying aspects of it to avoid frightening the children. Courser said she and the social work intern are the only two faculty members who directly participate in this program.

At all USD 383 schools, parents have the option to fill out a form that informs faculty that a student comes from a military family. They also are able to say whether the parent is deployed or not, so teachers can cater to a student’s specific needs, which often vary from student to student.

“Some kids are not affected because that’s the lifestyle they know,” Courser said. “They don’t know anything different than having a dad gone all the time. They were raised in that and it’s not any different. It’s just how it is. So it may not be a big deal.”

Sarah Olson, head social worker at Theodore Roosevelt Middle School, said every school in USD 383 has a social worker on staff who fulfills a number of roles, including initial counseling in the event something happens to a family member of a student.

Often, students and families are referred to outside mental health services who are more capable of long term and intensive assistance.

Olson said the school plays a role in getting a student through big events, such as the deployment or death of a family member, or even just big changes in a student’s home life.

“School can be that consistent place where the student goes that the friends are the same, the teachers are the same and the routine is the same,” Olson said. “A lot of kids really thrive in this environment and can function, even though there are some really significant things happening outside of here.”

Olson said that the school doesn’t help just the students get through major events that happen to military families. They provide advice and assistance too.

“I think families see us more as a resource provider for lots of things,” Olson said. “So if there’s something going on at home they often come to us and ask us, ‘How can we address this?'”

Olson said that she gets a lot of questions from parents about a variety of topics. This often includes families who don’t have a lot of other family nearby, such is the case with many military families.

“If their immediate family is going through a challenging situation like a death in the family or some other event, they really don’t have grandparents and cousins locally to lean on,” Olson said. “So, sometimes we can kind of help fill in that gap a little bit.”

Courser said she talks a lot with parents as well, helping school administrators and parents stay linked as a team to help their children continue to grow mentally.

Chaz Mailey, psychologist at Counseling Services, said K-State offers a variety of counseling options for students.

We provide individual psychotherapy to students that feel like they really want to come and talk to someone about things that they’re maybe struggling with,” Mailey said. “There’s an initial consult that’s free, and then three additional sessions where there’s no cost to the student. We also offer group therapy, which is nice because it’s kind of a way to begin finding out more about how you interact with others in sort of an interpersonal setting.”

Still, there are times when families lose their active-duty soldier due to combat events or off-duty accidents. Sally Sowell, director of the Soldier And Family Assistance Center at Fort Riley, said Fort Riley has a Survivor Outreach Services program that becomes a useful resource for military families in instances like these. Two coordinators work with families of deceased soldiers to take care of any needs the families may have.

“Every large installation has an SOS program to help with that,” Sowell said. “That’s the only thing they do.”

Christina Gary, lead Survivor Outreach Services coordinator for Fort Riley’s Army Community Services, said the SOS program provides long term support for families of fallen soldiers, whether the soldiers died in combat situations, off-duty accidents such as driving to work or in suicide and homicide situations.

“We don’t just limit our services to ‘Killed In Action,'” Gary said. “So as long as that soldier was serving and he died, we will support that family.”

Gary said that among the support SOS provides are programs, such as financial counseling, to help keep families from being preyed upon.

Once life insurance benefits are paid, often into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, military families are particularly vulnerable. According to Gary, the SOS program provides counseling free of charge to them, and counselors are not paid any extra based on counseling they provide.

SOS also occasionally refers families to outside programs such as Snowball Express, a program that allows children who have lost parents to connect with one another.

Gary said the most important thing the public can do in times when a family has lost a soldier is to simply remember the fallen person.

“Don’t be afraid to talk about that loss, because they just want their soldiers remembered,” Gary said. “Don’t forget about the impact that these dead have put upon our country. They don’t want to be forgotten.”

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Shelton grew up in the desert southwest. A native of Lancaster, California, he mostly grew up in south Phoenix, Arizona; Austin, Texas; and Colorado Springs, Colorado before moving to Kansas and graduating from Junction City High School. He started working as a news writer for the Collegian in 2009 before taking a three-year break from college. He returned to K-State in 2013 and has since worked for the news desk, feature desk, as a copy editor and now as a sports writer. He enjoys tap dancing, writing anything possible, reading court opinions and watching Arizona Coyotes hockey.