Smiling faces of children and Sailors filled the playground at Village Elementary School in Coronado in April; all of the children have one thing in common – they are related to active duty Sailors who are currently or soon to be deployed. The long separation that deployments present emotionally impact the Sailor and their family. Challenges arise when routines are disrupted and loved ones depart for months on end.
Operation Pals, an after-school club for kindergarten, first and second grade students who have a parent currently deployed or preparing to deploy, was created more than 10 years ago in an effort to help children cope with the emotional toll of deployment. The club’s goal is to help children make new friends and provide a space where they can feel the familiarity of a military connection.
“As military students have a hard time with their parent deploying, Operation Pals became more of a deployment club,” said Mindy Hayes, School Liaison for Naval Base Coronado, “so that these kids can get together and still feel that connection back to the military, while their parent is gone.”
Active duty volunteers, or “pals” as they are known, interact with the children after school to play games, share snacks, and tell stories of what their lives are like in the Navy. These pals connect with students as non-parental entities without presenting as an authority figure.
“[Students] automatically have a good time just talking to the volunteers and finding out ‘What do you do for your job? My dad works on planes or mine works on ships,’” said Hayes. “It’s just an automatic connection between two people who understand where each other is coming from.”
These visits can drastically change a child’s mood, especially if the parents are separated and the child doesn’t see both parents every day, Hayes explained.
Information Systems Technician 3rd Class Natalie Bush, a volunteer and a mom, says she faces many struggles when she has to leave her child behind on deployment, but Operation Pals helps remind her there are people supporting her family back home.
“Being a single mom is hard because you wonder, ‘Is my kid going to remember me?,’” said Bush. “It’s difficult because you aren’t there to give them that physical love. My son tells me ‘I don’t like it when you leave,’ so when I come back we catch up, but it’s not the same because you’re missing out on birthdays and special events. So Operation Pals is great for those kids while they are missing their parents; they still get to feel loved.”
For more than 10 years Operation Pals has been supporting the military families and plans to continue for the foreseeable future. The Sailors who volunteer to keep the program afloat are holding true to the saying “one team, one fight,” providing solace and support for their shipmates and their loved ones.