By Amy Binkley | The Globe | camplejeuneglobe.com | July 19, 2012
Service members understand putting their personal safety at risk comes with the job description, but for military children, the idea of a parent in harm's way is a heavy burden.
When warriors return home injured, whether physically or mentally, the weight on a child can be crushing.
The offer of a helping hand, however, can not only lift a spirit but also save a life.
Parents, siblings and friends gathered to welcome home more than 100 students from the Semper Fi Fund Kids Camp and Mentor Program at Lejeune High School aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune Saturday.
"There were a lot more (people) interested this year," said Jennifer Babineaux, a member of the Semper Fi Fund. "We doubled in size, and I only see it getting bigger in the future."
Finishing up its second year of success, the program was designed to pair rising high school juniors and seniors with the children of injured service members in an environment where a mentoring relationship could be fostered through adventures and team building activities. All mentors are also children of active-duty service members.
Breena McCarthy signed on to be a mentor in the hopes of learning valuable leadership skills but soon realized there was much more to the program.
"It's good to be with people who have gone through the same things as you," she explained. "It's a life changing experience."
The camp, located on Outdoor Odyssey's 500-acre Laurel Highland camp in Pennsylvania, was founded by retired Maj. Gen. T.S. Jones. After getting into trouble as a teen, Jones' life was changed when someone invested the time to mentor him and teach him the importance of genuinely caring about not only himself but others.
"(It's) what you all need to have," Jones told the mentors, who spent three days in leadership training before the campers arrived. "You may be able to fool your parents or your teachers, but you can never fool a young child, especially not one who is looking up to you to mentor them. Those are the two most important words – genuine concern."
During the three-day training, mentors learned to work together to overcome physical and mental obstacles. They scaled walls, conquered a high ropes course with only wires 30 feet above ground to walk on and crawled into the belly of the earth at Bear's Cave. The cave was so dark at some points the teens couldn't even see their hands in front of their faces.
The intense Leadership Reaction Course proved to be extremely useful in creating a trusting team environment and preparing the mentors for their campers.
"It's amazing the things you can bond through," marveled Kayla Watson, a mentor. "Even when you don't want to keep going, you do because people are counting on you."
When the campers arrived, it didn't take long for friendships to form, and soon kids were sharing their struggles of military life with their older counterparts.
Babineaux's son, Cody, returned for a second year of mentoring after realizing the importance of his role as someone who has already experienced what many of the campers are going through.
"I was fortunate enough when my dad deployed nothing bad happened," he said. "Unfortunately, a lot of kids aren't that (lucky). I wanted to give kids someone to talk to. I want to be there for them."
The Semper Fi Fund worked together with the Wounded Warrior Battalion to identify and invite children to the week-long camp.
"All the work gets done on the back of the volunteers," stated Col. Timothy Mundy, 2nd Marine Division. "The injury to the Marine affects the entire family. (Through this) the kids have someone to talk to because the camp is just a start to the relationship."
Mundy's daughter, Sloan, took charge of updating the camp blog and uploading pictures for parents back home to see.
As a former mentor, she challenged her peers and their campers to maintain the relationships they built in the seclusion of the Pennsylvania mountains.
"A big family was born this week," she addressed the group at the reunion. "Mentors and campers should stay in touch. The goal is to create a lifetime bond."
No one knows what the future will bring, but one thing remains true no matter what comes – life is better with people by your side.