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4-H Embraces Children of Deployed Soldiers

ALBUQUERQUE - 4-H is helping New Mexico National Guard families stay united by providing the tools for kids to correspond with their deployed parents.

New Mexico National Guard youth coordinator Beth Depersio, left, discusses the contents of a 4-H "hero pack" with Michelle Skibyak -- whose father is deployed in Iraq -- and with 4-H home economist Kelly Knight. NMSU is partnering with the Guard to provide 4-H hero packs to youngsters statewide, and to organize social activities that can help youth cope with their parents' deployment. (12/16/2005) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by Kevin Robinson-Avila)

Michelle Skibyak, an 11th-grader from Rio Rancho, received a disposable camera, stationery and stamps this summer to send pictures to her father, a National Guardsman deployed in Iraq. The items were included in a "hero pack" prepared by the 4-H program.

"The hero pack was really special because it showed that people care about me and other kids with parents in the military and they want to help us get through this," Sikbyak said. "I've been writing a lot to my dad on the stationery I got from 4-H. He says he loves my letters because it gives him a taste of home."

Skibyak is one of thousands of youngsters in New Mexico with a parent deployed in Iraq or elsewhere that New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service hopes to reach through the statewide 4-H youth program. Extension 4-H agents are partnering with the New Mexico National Guard's Family Program to reach out to youngsters, said Cindy Davies, urban 4-H agent with the Bernalillo County Extension office.

"We want these kids to get to know each other and be a source of support for one another," Davies said. "Most kids with a parent overseas have similar needs, but support programs usually target young children. Under this program, we're reaching out to kids between 12 and 18 to provide them with activities and services that meet their needs."

The program is specifically aimed at National Guard and Army Reserve families, which are widely dispersed across the state, Davies said.

"Families at military bases like Kirtland or Holloman are already part of a community with a lot of support structures in place, but National Guard families are very spread out and they often have little contact with one another," Davies said. "We want to pull them together into a community network."

In fact, Skibyak said she only knows a couple of other teenagers with deployed parents.

"I'm looking forward to meeting more kids my age with a parent overseas because most of us are going through the same things," Skibyak said. "We can understand each other and maybe provide some support for one another."

The National Guard has contracted with the 4-H program nationally to provide services for youngsters in many states, but the New Mexico 4-H program has not yet received funds under the initiative, dubbed Operation Military Kids, said Linda Schultz, Extension 4-H specialist in Las Cruces.

"It's a nationwide initiative designed to provide support to the children and youth of families impacted by the global war on terrorism, but regardless of whether we get funding, we're reaching out to youth in New Mexico anyway because it's the right thing to do," Schultz said.

The National Guard has family assistance centers at military installations in Albuquerque, Rio Rancho, Springer, Gallup, Roswell and Las Cruces, but the Guard is relying on 4-H to organize activities and draw youngsters into the program, said youth coordinator Beth Depersio.

"4-H has deep roots in local communities," Depersio said. "Extension agents are willing to help in practically every county ?- any place that there's a deployed parent."

4-H members in high school are now collecting items around the state to include in dozens of hero packs for children and teenagers whose parents will be deployed next year, said Kelly Knight, a 4-H home economist heading the project. In addition to items to correspond with parents, the packs will include books, journals to vent emotions, stuffed animals, toys and 4-H memorabilia.

"The packs recognize these kids as heroes for sharing their family with New Mexico and the country," Knight said. "It's a way to thank them for their sacrifice and show them that other people care."

In January, 4-H will offer Bernalillo County teenagers a four-part class on babysitting and child development so they can help parents at home by caring for siblings, Davies said. In March, 4-H will offer them a day of shooting sports. And in the summer, youngsters statewide can attend three-day camps in Cloudcroft and Angel Fire where they'll learn camping skills, participate in arts and crafts, go canoeing and climb a portable rock wall provided by the National Guard.

"All these things help build self-confidence, camaraderie and a sense of belonging," Depersio said. "That's important for these kids. They need to know that they do have family and community around them."

For more information, call Davies at (505) 243-1386 or Depersio at (505) 271-7191.