By Annelise Jolley
From parental deployment to frequent moves, military children deal with stressors most of their friends and schoolmates will never encounter.
Military families move three times more often  than civilian families, with the average family relocating every two to three years . Continuous transition means the average military child will change schools six to nine times . As a result of the unique stressors they face, one-third of school-age military children show behavioral signs of anxiety and fear  that public schools—where most of these students spend their days—aren’t equipped to address. But when school’s out for the summer, military kids have Armed Services YMCA’s Camp Hero .
Run by the Armed Services YMCA (ASYMCA) of San Diego, Camp Hero STEAM Camps for Military Kids help the youngest members of military families cope, connect, and thrive. The day camp’s activities build science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) abilities and increase self-confidence, self-esteem, and independence. For only $99 a week Camp Hero provides San Diego military kids ages 6 to 15 with a safe and stimulating environment to grow and learn—one that’s custom-fit for their backgrounds.
San Diego is currently home to more than 170,000 active-duty military personnel and their families and that number is growing. For over 100 years, San Diego’s Armed Services YMCA has served the local military community. By providing no-cost or low-cost counseling, financial assistance, and social and educational programs, the non-profit organization strengthens military families, supports healthy lifestyles, reduces isolation, and connects service members to their community. The Armed Services YMCA understands that military children serve in their own way. Through Camp Hero, the organization provides a space for them to shed responsibility and enjoy the summer.
“We are able to embrace the Camp Hero families with our programs and services,” says Phillip Sammuli, director of corporate relations. “The Armed Services YMCA is right in the middle of the largest military housing complex which makes it extremely convenient for our families to receive services.”
Thanks to community support, Camp Hero provides specialized educational programming when the school year is over. Local partner SDG&E supports the Armed Services YMCA’s STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) initiative. “[The program] is focused not only on the activities and lessons provided but also on the particular challenges that military children face like relocations, deployments, making friendships and bonding with others, and identifying positively as a member of a military family,” says Sammuli. “SDG&E has helped make this happen.”
The Camp Hero experience is broken down by weekly themes that include field trips to enhance the learning experience. The Camp Hero curriculum is designed to help children find practical and fun ways to address the challenges of military life, introduce tools to help them succeed in school, and improve social and communication skills. As the week progresses, campers form new friendships with other military children who share common experiences. “Kids that attend Camp Hero are able to build a network of friends and a support system that is unlike any other due to the similarities in lifestyle,” says Program Director Jon Rios.
The camp welcomes kids from kindergarten through 8th grade, splitting up the ages into Explorers and Adventurers. Learning opportunities take place in the classroom as well as in the community through multiple outings made possible through a variety of partners, which means campers are exposed to the best that summer in San Diego can offer. For many campers, these are brand-new experiences. On a given week they might visit the Safari Park, go horseback riding, play in the sun at Mission Beach, take art classes, or soak up the interactive exhibits at the Children’s Museum. Not to mention rock climbing, hikes, laser tag, and a visit to Petco Park to cheer on the Padres. At Camp Hero kids take in their city’s culture through hands-on, experiential learning.
For camper Trinity Taubken, the best part is the visit to the Blue Apple Ranch. “It gives me so much knowledge of the animals and farms and the staff is very nice and friendly,” she says. Her mother Jennifer adds, “I know my child is learning the latest about science, technology, engineering, arts, and math while making memories and friends with other military children that will last a lifetime, despite our family’s frequent military relocation or moves.”
It’s not just parents who notice the positive changes in their children. Armed Services YMCA staff also sees kids develop more confidence and resilience through Camp Hero. “As a result of participating in these activities we see kids become more outspoken, stronger willed, more comfortable in their new environment, more relaxed in situations of parent separation from deployments and overall better engaged in their school and community,” Rios says. Camp Hero may only last for the summer, but the campers’ friendships and growth will extend into the years ahead.