Proud to Be Purple

March 29, 2019
COURTESY THE NATIONAL MILITARY FAMILY ASSOCIATION

Alaysia Thomas is 16. She went to sleepaway camp for the first time last summer. At camp, she rode horses. She also went canoeing. But her favorite thing was talking with other campers. “I made great friendships,” she told TIME for Kids.

The campers had something in common. They all have a parent in the military. Some, such as Alaysia and her younger sister, Alivia, have two.

The camp the girls went to is in Virginia. It’s one of several Operation Purple camps across the country run by the National Military Family Association (NMFA). These free, weeklong camps are for kids ages 7 to 17.

GOING UP? Operation Purple campers take on challenges such as climbing to test their skills and build confidence.

COURTESY THE NATIONAL MILITARY FAMILY ASSOCIATION

Going to an Operation Purple camp can be a military kid’s first time around other military kids. “It’s a chance for them to come together,” Hannah Pike says. She is an NMFA programs director.

Stephanie Thomas is grateful for Operation Purple. She is Alaysia and Alivia’s mother. She is also in the United States Army. “We sacrifice a lot for our country,” she says. “That little bit given back, to take care of our kids—it’s appreciated.”

At Your Service

More than 62,000 kids have gone to an Operation Purple camp since 2004. According to Pike, some sites get more than 500 applications for just 150 spots. Priority is given to kids with a parent who has recently been or will soon be deployed. Spots are also held for kids whose parents have been hurt.

HI, HORSE Horses may be part of an Operation Purple experience.

COURTESY THE NATIONAL MILITARY FAMILY ASSOCIATION

Part of the program’s appeal is its price tag. “Military families often struggle with finances,” Amy Bushatz says. “It doesn’t hurt that the camp is free.” Her son, David, is 9. He went to camp in Alaska in 2017.

So who pays? “We have generous donors,” Pike says. One is the Wounded Warrior Project. It announced a $750,000 grant to Operation Purple last month.

DON'T FORGET TO WRITE Children sign messages on each other’s T-shirts on the last day of the weeklong camp.

COURTESY THE NATIONAL MILITARY FAMILY ASSOCIATION

Strength and Honor

Military children face unique challenges. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, families in the military might move every two to four years. That means kids can switch schools nine times by age 18.

At an Operation Purple camp, kids bond with new friends who are facing the same challenges. Also, Pike says each camp has two counselors trained to help military kids. They support campers in need.

MILITARY DAY The National Guard share military items. They might even bring tanks or helicopters.

COURTESY THE NATIONAL MILITARY FAMILY ASSOCIATION

On a military-themed day, campers make a Wall of Honor. Alaysia Thomas added a poster about her family to her camp’s display. Is she proud of her two military parents? “Very,” she says.

Sidebar: Bring a Buddy

COURTESY THE NATIONAL MILITARY FAMILY ASSOCIATION

Nearly 2 million kids have a parent in the U.S. military, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. Operation Purple wants to serve as many of them as possible.

That’s where Buddy Camp comes in. This Operation Purple program is for military children who are not ready to go to sleepaway camp on their own. At a Buddy Camp, kids ages 5 to 8 bring along a “buddy.” This can be a parent, grandparent, or caretaker. Hannah Pike says that Buddy Camp is “a really special bonding experience.”

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