28 Sept 2010
by Melissa Bower
FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. - When Gayla Hammerstrom wanted her 5-year-old twins, Kai and Cadon, to connect with other children of deployed Soldiers, she found out about a program called Hearts Apart.
"I thought it would be a good opportunity for somebody else to talk to my kids about the deployment, and reinforcing what their dad was doing for them and to also meet other kids whose mommy or daddy is gone," Hammerstrom said.
Children in Fort Leavenworth's Unified School District 207 and home-schooled children associated with post were invited to the first Hearts Apart event for the season, a Volksmarch around Trails West Golf Course Sept. 18.
Debbie Sack, counselor for Eisenhower Elementary School, said the program is specifically for children who have deployed parents. Children meet regularly to share stories, do art projects and participate in other activities in each school. At least once a year, all the schools on post bring in a magician or musician or other special guest.
Hammerstrom's husband, Maj. Michael Hammerstrom, is serving in Afghanistan for one year. This is the first time the family has experienced a full yearlong deployment. She's been volunteering at her children's school almost every day.
Through Hearts Apart, Hammerstrom has learned which children in the school are also experiencing deployment and had the chance to meet other spouses, as well.
"They have actually figured out they have a couple of classmates in their grade whose daddy is gone, and they see other kids in their schools that were (at the Volksmarch)," Hammerstrom said of her boys.
Diana Willbanks' granddaughter participated in the program last year at Eisenhower when her father was deployed. She said it made her granddaughter feel special to know that a picture of her with her father was up at the school. They sent letters to Soldiers overseas and sent boxes during the holidays, Willbanks said.
"We just couldn't ask for anything more supportive of the schools," she said. "It's been wonderful."
Sack said children in the program receive a "kissing pillow," a deployment journal and other comfort items donated to the school by various organizations across the United States. The Fort Leavenworth Spouses' Club and the thrift shop on post both donate to the program as well.
Sack said the Directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation supports the program. For the Sept. 18 event, FMWR opened Holes 'n Rolls miniature golf course and skate park for the families.
During her sessions with Hearts Apart children, Sack has a "sharing time," in which she goes around the room and asks each child to share a story. She said many children find they have a lot of the same stories about deployments.
"I personally feel that Hearts Apart fills a need at Fort Leavenworth," she said.
Sack said she and other school counselors are available for children at the schools who are having a particularly tough time with a deployment. They take referrals from parents and teachers.
"I counsel with individual kids that are having difficulty with their mom or dad being gone in the home," she said. "I don't work individually with every kid because some of the kids are handling it fine."
The schools find out which children have a deployed parent by asking them at enrollment time. Sack estimates there are about 20 families at Eisenhower who are currently experiencing deployment.
Children usually attend the program a month before their parent deploys.
"Then they'll have one more meeting after their parent returns, and we celebrate the fact that their mom or dad is home," Sack said.
To find out about Hearts Apart activities at each of Fort Leavenworth's four schools, contact the school counselor. Each counselor's contact information is available on the USD 207 website, www.ftlvn.com.