CHICAGO — In the lower level of a downtown Chicago hotel, 10-year-old Ariana looked reassuringly at her cousin, Destyni. The 12-year-old intently stared back.
"You don't need to be worried anymore," Ariana said in a soft voice as she rocked back and forth on the heels of her glittered shoes. "He's safe and coming home today."
They were talking about Ariana's father, Destyni's uncle. Except the gunnery sergeant based out of Great Lakes Naval Station in North Chicago was not coming home; he was preparing for overseas deployment.
The make-believe, role-playing exercise was part of Operation Oak Tree, a Chicago-based arts therapy program that helps families of military personnel deal with the emotional rollercoaster that accompanies the many stages of deployment.
Soon entering its second year, the program encourages kids like Ariana and Destyni to express their feelings about having mom, dad, or another family member deploy, sometimes for months or years to dangerous places. It's also about watching for signs of distress, and alerting the child's parents so the family can talk about it.
"These kids, most of them that we've seen, there's nothing wrong. They're just going through something really, really extraordinarily difficult," said Katherine Dillingham, a drama therapist who helped found the program in 2009. "We want to make available to them the services so that they're at least prepared to talk to their parents."
About 230 family members of Illinois National Guard soldiers have taken part in the exercises, including 40 children in predeployment events. The program is administered by the Institute for Therapy through the Arts, a division of the Music Institute of Chicago.
After being privately funded its first year, the program is now being contracted through the Illinois National Guard. Illinois guard units have deployed nearly 18,000 soldiers overseas over the last decade and currently have approximately 340 in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan.
Joan Phillips, president of the American Art Therapy Association, estimates there are several dozen pilot programs around the country that focus on some form of art therapy — art, drama and music — for military families. She said they're both publically and privately funded through hospitals, clinics, or even school systems.
"In general, there aren't enough for sure," she said. "It's an emerging area, and one therapists are interested in."
Phillips said about a dozen workshops were dedicated to working with military families at the association's annual convention this month in Washington, D.C.
The issue, and Operation Oak Tree itself, grabbed the attention of Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, when the second lady took part in a discussion of creative arts therapy at a June event hosted by The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Biden and first lady Michelle Obama recently launched a nationwide campaign to support military families.
Ariana and Destyni were among eight children taking part in the Chicago session. The younger ones, all under 10 years old, clutched puppets in their hands and spoke in cartoonish voices to a drama therapist. Others sang along with a guitar-playing music therapist.
Most had met that morning. But Dillingham, who coordinates the program, pointed out that the exercises waste little time in letting the kids understand why they're there. Military officials asked that the families' full names or deployment situations not be published for security reasons.
The group first started working with the National Guard to help families deal with the homecoming of a soldier. More than 40 events later, the program has evolved to include the U.S. Marine Corps and to address all three stages of deployment — pre-mobilization, actual deployment and reintegration.
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.