Wendy Caldron, family readiness officer for Marine Air Control Group 48 at Great Lakes, said the pre-mobilization program is unique for its focus on children. "Some children may be able to adjust more easily if they know that they're not the only ones in the same situation," she said.
In the room designated for music playing, therapist Jeff Wolfe's eyes pop open. He points at the scribbled words on the marker board: Mom. Dad. Sister. God. The seated kids look around, the feet of one girl dressed in pink swinging wildly.
"What would you do, if I were away?" Wolfe sings while strumming his guitar. "Would you be bored all day long?"
The music therapist said he wanted the kids to associate feelings with words, even if negative.
"What we try to do is validate (their) emotions and try to bring them to the positives," he said.
Into Ariana and Destyni's role-playing stepped volunteer Duane Stuckman. A young father with two deployments under his belt, the Great Lakes-based Marine waited for Dillingham's instructions.
Dillingham crouched near Ariana. "We should plan his return party!" she suggested.
Ariana then repeated the words to Destyni.
Suddenly, Stuckman, in his uniform, was play-acting as Ariana's father, reaching his arms out for a hug. Then he pretended to be Ariana, shyly repeating encouraging words. Then he was Destyni. The role swapping, which is another part of the session, made the girls giggle as they imagined the tall, 23-year-old as a little girl.
The therapists say it's difficult to gauge how kids respond to the program. They note that many military families don't want to divulge information, so the feedback is limited.
New legislation awaiting Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn's signature would require schools to ask families if they're in the military or are preparing for deployment. Supporters say the bill could help schools identify needs and receive untapped federal aid for programs like Operation Oak Tree.
"If we knew where these kids are, it would help us all to be more strategic about how to help these families," said Laura Gallagher Watkin from Health & Disability Advocates, a group that supported the bill.
For Dillingham, the drama therapist, it all boils down to a simple goal.
"We don't want to say, 'This must be so hard for you,'" she said. "We want for them to say it."
Barbara Rodriguez can be reached at www.twitter.com/bcrodriguez.
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