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School provides expertise to summer camp for military children

UNC’s School of Social Work is once again lending support to a summer camp that serves children from military families.

This is the second summer that faculty members Laurie Selz-Campbell and Irene Nathan Zipper have trained staff for “Camp Corral,” a week-long camp that restaurant chain Golden Corral started in North Carolina in 2011. The free camp, which now operates in nine states, is supported by Golden Corral, its employees, and customers and works in partnership with the 4-H Youth Development Group. The camp serve boys and girls, ages 8 to 15, and like most summer camps, offers a variety of activities, including swimming, horseback riding, crafts and canoeing. But campers also have at least one thing in common: a military parent who returned from deployment as a wounded or disabled soldier.

“I think these camps are valuable because they give kids a break and they give families a break,” said Selz-Campbell, a clinical assistant professor. “For the kids, especially if they have a parent who has a disability, they can feel really different. So here’s a setting where everybody has a chance to bond over a similar experience and at the same time, have fun.”

Camp Corral originated in Ellerbe, N.C., but with the recent expansion, officials hope to reach 1,800 military children this year, including through camps in Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Ohio, Texas and Virginia.

The School of Social Work was tapped to help prepare camp directors and counselors for working with these children thanks to 1997 MSW graduate Easter Maynard; her father is Golden Corral co-founder James Maynard. The alumna, who also sits on the School’s Board of Advisors, approached UNC several years ago about a philanthropic project that her family wanted to pursue, said Mary Beth Hernandez, associate dean for advancement. After several conversations, the camp idea was born.

“We have a lot of expertise with military members and their families, so this was a way for us to help out a very worthy organization,” Hernandez said. “It really is a great program.”

Because the children who attend Camp Corral often bring with them experiences that are different than what many other children experience, Golden Corral also wanted to make sure that its leaders “were prepared to provide the best support possible” to campers, Maynard added.

“The UNC School of Social Work’s outstanding reputation made them a natural partner,” she said.

Selz-Campbell and Zipper were equally eager to get on board. Selz-Campbell developed and teaches a course that helps social work students better understand the military environment and the daily lives of service members and their families. Zipper’s work as a clinical professor and director of the Family Support Program has focused heavily on military families; she is currently an investigator for a $1 million federally-funded project that aims to strengthen support for military families with children with developmental disabilities. She also has extensive experience in children’s mental health.

Based on their expertise, the faculty members developed a training program that helps educate camp directors and counselors on military culture and the many challenges that children from military families may face.

“Children from military families certainly have strengths, but they may also be forced to move more frequently than other families,” Zipper explained. “They often have to make friends very quickly. They have a set of values that have to do with courage and bravery and pride in the family member who has been deployed. And, these children often have issues that have to do with the returning family member. And that’s what we really focus on—the impact on the child of the returning family member and the role the camp can play in helping the child deal with that.”

Part of the training program teaches staff how to identify signs of stress in military children, such as withdrawal, sadness, aggressive behavior, and trouble sleeping. This stress, which may have originated during a parent’s deployment, can remain even after the military member’s return, especially if the veteran comes home with a physical or psychiatric disability, Selz-Campbell said.

“So while the parent was at war, the child was worried about the parent dying and now that child might be worried about their parent’s overall health,” she said.

Using role playing scenarios, Camp Corral leaders discuss ways to alleviate those worries as well as ideas to help children feel safe and self-confident. Sometimes, children simply need someone to listen to them and to validate their feelings, the School faculty members agreed.

Overall, camp leaders have found the training worthwhile, Maynard said.

“We have gotten terrific feedback from staff around the country,” she said. “All the camp directors feel much better prepared to provide a high quality, supportive environment to the children they will serve this summer.”

Although camps generally benefit children, more research is needed to better understand just how such summer experiences influence children from military families. Selz-Campbell and Zipper hope to pursue such a study.

“We think—though there hasn’t been any research on this—that camp could provide a real respite from all of the stress when a family member returns,” Zipper said. “So for some, camp might be a place where they can talk about things that they don’t feel comfortable talking about at home. And for some, it may be that they’re with other military children who understand the military experience and the returning parent in a way that others don’t.

“But it’s hard to know, which is why I think there is a real need for some research.”

By Susan White

Photos courtesy Camp Corral