Dealing with the deployment or loss of a loved one can be a terrifying and stressful experience for anyone – but it can be particularly hard on the mind of a young and developing child. Today, a steady stream of research is beginning to show the myriad effects that a deployment can have on a family. And, as a country, we are finally starting to understand and appreciate the impact it has on the developing brains of the children who are left behind.
One study by the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that one in three children report excessively worrying about their parent’s deployment, while a recent survey of parents showed that one in five children are coping poorly with deployment, and/or have developed behavioral problems.
It’s disturbing statistics like these that spurred U.S. Army Col. Rodney Davis, (Ret.) to dedicate his post-military career to helping the more than 220,000 children who have a parent currently deployed overseas, and the nearly 2 million who have a parent serving in the military – where the possibility of deployment is ever-present.
“I’ve focused most of my time on youths at the national, state or local level after retiring,” says Rodney, the National Director for Military Mentoring of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBS).
The BBBS Military Mentoring Program focuses specifically on supporting children in military families, aged 7 to 17, and engaging active duty, reserve or retired/separated military personnel as well as civilians to be volunteer mentors. BBBS currently boasts a roster of more than 3,000 servicemembers who volunteer as Big Brothers or Big Sisters (“Bigs” as they call them), to children of various backgrounds across the U.S. The Military Mentoring Program has about 1,000 military “Littles.
Just like the Bigs in its parent organization, Bigs in the Military Mentoring Program spend a few hours per month with their Littles, attending ball games or other events, hanging out with them after school, and serving as an adult role model for the child. Typically, a Big will meet with a Little two to four times per month for an average of about 2 years, Rodney says.
Since returning from his last tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2003 and retiring from service in 2004, Rodney, 57, has served as a strategic consultant for the National Guard Youth Challenge Program, a regional workforce development senior manager, a non-profit organization executive director, and as a consultant for BBBS before being hired as its national military mentoring director. He also volunteers as a member of the Military Family Support Committee for the National Parent Teacher Association.
“I was honored to be offered the national director position in May 2012 because I truly believe in the mission. We reinforce the connection between the child and the parent and we acknowledge and respect military values as an excellent platform for the child’s personal development,” he says. “Our mentors aren’t tutors, but they do facilitate the child’s education and skills achievement.”
All Bigs who enter the program are thoroughly screened and trained before they ever see a child, Rodney says. The organization pays for extensive background checks, provides training classes, technical assistance, and parental approval is required for all Big-Little matches. This is why Rodney spends so much of his time and energy travelling from military installation to military installation, speaking to military influencers, and raising funds to pay the estimated $2,000 costs of mentoring each child. BBBS has 347 agencies across the country. As of December 2013, the military mentoring program is established in 25 of those locations across the United States, including key bases such as Fort Hood, Naval Base San Diego, Marine Corp Camp Pendleton, MacDill Air Force Base, Joint Base San Antonio, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Fort Carson, and Joint Base Elmendorf. The program will also expand to support Naval Station Norfolk in 2014.
“Our agencies work with these families to provide the right mentor for their child – wherever they live, whether we have an active program in that city or not,” he says. “If we encounter a family who wants service, we’ll do our best to find a way.”
Rodney, who has two grown children of his own, served for 26 years on active duty in the Army with multiple tours overseas as an infantry and public affairs officer. Having seen firsthand the effects that his service had on his own children – and on the children of those with whom he served – Rodney takes his role very seriously and works tirelessly to spread the word about the program.
One of Rodney’s main goals for the future, he says, is to expand service to the most vulnerable children in the military system: the children who have lost a parent in the line of duty.
It’s important to remember that for every heartwarming Youtube video of a teary-eyed reunion between deployed parent and child, there are other children who will never have that opportunity.
“I have a special place in my heart for the children of the fallen,” he says. “It’s a population that needs special attention, and we want to expand our capacity to serve them. We currently have 30 children of the fallen enrolled. Right now (Dec. 12, 2013), I am actually at the annual Snowball Express event (an event for families of the fallen) in Dallas, Texas. There are 1,750 children of the fallen here and so far, ninety military widows have requested Bigs for their children.”
The BBBS Military Mentoring Program is open to all military children including children of the fallen as well as children of veterans at some locations. Prospective Bigs can become a volunteer by contacting the local agency or by signing up on the website at www.bbbs.org. The local agency will meet with the volunteer, conduct the background check and provide the required training before the adult is matched with a child. Once approved by the family, BBBS will formally match the Big with the child, assign a case manager, and designate some activities to start the process.
In 2014, as he begins his third year as national director, Rodney plans to do plenty of fundraising as well as to work hard to grow the rosters of military-connected Bigs and Littles.
“We feel very positive about where we’re going,” Rodney says. “We are developing the right relationships with the commanders and influencers at these military installations. So, I expect my focus to shift to fundraising and to supporting the recruitment efforts of military children, and the Bigs who will mentor to our next generation of Bigs.”
Rodney Davis is a current client of First Command Financial Services, Inc.
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