Adolescence can be a rocky road for any child, but for those whose family members have made the ultimate military sacrifice, the challenges are even more complicated.
Whether that’s a Wounded Warrior father struggling with PTSD or a Gold Star Family whose mother was lost in combat, these teens must navigate a world that is foreign to most of their peers.
Hoping to provide the children a bit of respite and support, Gary Varrella, Washington State University Spokane County Extension director and 4-H educator, worked with Karen Hammock, Spokane 4-H military liaison, to establish Camp Rendezvous in 2021.
“We had never done a camp like this in Washington before,” says Varrella. “This was designed specifically for this unique population that likely has high levels of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. There may have been some Wounded Warrior and Gold Star kids in other military camps but never a camp just for them.”
Spokane County Extension 4-H has served Washington’s military youth for more than 15 years through a variety of residential camp experiences, says Hammock. Their office has ongoing partnerships with the US Army, Air Force, and National Guard. At one time, they even worked with the Navy.
Through grant funding and donations, Varrella and Hammock were able to hold Military Youth Camp Rendezvous again last August at the Sound View Camp and Retreat Center near Longbranch, Washington. It was open to teens aged 13–17.
“We only take 25 campers because these youth come with many more struggles,” Varrella says. “We rent the entire campground for five days and the world revolves completely around them. There are no other campers or distractions, and by the third day, they’re beginning to talk candidly and share their concerns and traumas, which are many and complex.”
To that end, Hammock says the military provides two full-time military and family life counselors free of charge. Camp staff also includes an art therapist and theater therapist, as well as retired military members, and two medics, both ex-military. All have been background checked and trained.
WSU Extension 4-H faculty members Ashley Hernandez-Hall from Snohomish County, Brian Brandt from Pierce County, and Alison White from Kittitas/Yakima Counties also offer special sessions meant to help the teens develop resiliency and establish a sense of belonging and rapport with other campers. Michelle Green of King County Extension 4-H adds some fun through STEM workshops.
Their combined efforts have been truly inspiring according to parents:
“My daughter chose this camp specifically because it would allow her to be around other military kids who have experiences similar to her own … kids whose parent had suffered injuries in combat. She found a level of peers that she hasn’t found elsewhere. It allowed her to open up a lot more and share things that she hasn’t shared with other friends back at school.”
“My son … is a child of a disabled veteran. He didn’t get the opportunity to know his dad prior to his traumatic brain injury. He was able to come home from camp and share his experiences with us, and it gave him a platform to ask questions to his dad with a little more understanding and grace after hearing from other campers about their shared experiences.”
“These military youth face so much in their lives, many struggling with a loss of a family member or long-term hardships from their family’s military service. This camp gave these campers more than any other I’ve ever seen, providing resources, teaching tactics to help with stress, and opening a safe place to share their burdens. I hope Camp Rendezvous continues to be that place you belong!”
Varrella has worked with youth for 50 years but says Camp Rendezvous was the most “profound, meaningful, impactful camp for teens” that he’s ever been involved with during his career.
“It blew me away,” he says. “Not just the challenges these teens faced and managed but the candor and sincerity that came out of us building a trusting safe environment for them to be able to have a vacation from that difficult life, and to be able to share things that they hadn’t been able to share before to parents, siblings, therapists, or even out loud to themselves.
“I think Karen and I are probably more proud of the work we’ve done with these camps than any of the others in the last 15 years.”