YMCA Camp Hamman Ranch Helping Military Kids Cope

On the southeastern edge of the Texas Hill Country, just a few miles outside the small river town of Bandera, YMCA Camp Hamman Ranch sprawls over 732 acres of picturesque countryside. It's the kind of summer camp you might get straight out of central casting, a place kids dream about. But as Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports, Camp Hamman Ranch is about more than just having fun. It's a place where the children of soldiers deployed in the war zone go to learn ways to cope with having their parents in harm's way.

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"Melanie, it really doesn't get any easier. The fear is going to stay there. You have to decide to beat your fear."

Melanie Lowery is scared. She has one foot on top of a quivering, 25-foot tall wooden pole, called a pamper pole, but can't bring herself to plant her other foot and stand up. She's been stuck in a cramped squatting position for about 10 minutes.

"You have to stand up on your right leg. Stand up. Straighten your knee."

"I am so scared."

"I know, but you can do this."

Camp director Len Masengale knows what he's talking about. He's helped countless campers conquer their fears, and he knows 15-year-old Melanie is no different. Even though she's tethered to a safety rope, she's still afraid.

"Can I just get down?"

"Well, come down trying. At least try and stand up."

Melanie is one of 67 kids between 13-18 years old at Camp Hamman Ranch, all of them with parents either currently deployed or on stand-by for assignments in the war zone. She's from Austin and her dad is in the military. Still perched on the pamper pole, she's ready to make a move.

"All the way up. Don't hesitate."

"I didn't want to bring myself up. I just wanted to go back down. I can't believe I did it."

YMCA Camp Hamman Ranch is just one in a network of summer camps that are part of a free program called "Operation Purple Camp," currently in more than 20 states and specifically designed for young people with parents in the military.

"We're allowing them to have the emotions that kids should be allowed to have. We're allowing them to have the fears and not telling them don't feel that way. They do feel that way so we allow that and then help them cope. That's all we're trying to do here."

".....one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all."

Gathered around an American flag in the center of camp, kids like 14-year-old Emily Kimmel of Corpus Christi are happy to be here. Her dad is just back from a deployment and could be gone again soon.

"Like in school and stuff, there were a few kids who had military families but over here you see a lot more people who have the same fears and they understand what you're going through."

(Screams)

Waiting for his turn on a hair-raising zip line that sends campers careening across a gorge in a safety harness, 15-year-old Cameron Herrod of Dallas reflects on what life is like without his dad, who's deployed in the war zone.

"He's gone and I'm the oldest, so I have to be the man of the house. It happens like that. He's gone and I have to take on more responsibilities than I'm used to. And each time he goes I'm older, so I get more and more, you know. It makes me feel like I'm responsible for more, for my brothers. I know I'm not supposed to, but I am, you know."

"Watch this. Watch this. I can act like an otter, see?"

"Operation Purple Camp" is four years old and was started by the National Military Family Association. Ruth Beaudry is with the United States Army and is overseeing the program at Camp Hamman Ranch.

"They saw the stress that was happening within the families and they really felt like something needed to be put in place to help youth and children come up with coping skills to help them deal with the stresses of having a parent, or parents, deployed."

There are pictures, including one of Melanie Lowery standing atop the pamper pole, on our website, KUHF.org.

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