Moving — an average of once every three years. Changing schools. Missing their absent parent.
Any one of those events is enough to defeat a kid. But when mom or dad is in uniform, a child must cope with it all.
A panel of military teens speaking at a conference in Lakewood on Friday said they have learned how to bounce back. But they also had a message for the teachers, counselors and other adults in their lives: They can’t do it alone.
“Be that mentor, that go-to person,” pleaded Daniela Suarez, a 17-year-old from North Thurston High School. “I need someone to say ‘I can help you.’ It means a lot.”
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Suarez and four other students were part of a Military Kids and Families Summit on Friday at Clover Park Technical College. The event, in conjunction with military child month, included information on resources for military families and featured several speakers, including the youth panel.
it’s hard managing it all
Alexis Villarreal, Clover Park High School student
Suarez said her school counselors and career advisers have played important roles in her life, along with mentors she has come to know through on-base youth centers. Being able to hang with other military kids at the centers helped her fit in.
“It’s unimaginable how welcome you feel,” Suarez said. “I like that.”
Mate’Ja Belmont, a 17-year-old from Lakes High School in Lakewood, was born at Fort Knox, Kentucky, but has been to 10 schools during her dad’s military career.
She said changing schools so often was difficult, given her shy personality.
“I didn’t have friends,” she said. “I didn’t want to make friends and leave them behind.”
“By high school, everybody already has a set of friends,” added Alexis Villarreal, a 17-year-old from Clover Park High School in Lakewood.
Breaking into a new group takes a lot of effort, she said. It often means juggling a number of extracurricular activities and school work.
“I want to be involved. It’s the only way to make friends,” Villarreal said, her voice breaking a little. “But it’s hard managing it all.”
Jackie Flournoy, a 13-year-old from Glacier View Junior High in Puyallup, said the most difficult times for her have come when her dad was deployed with the National Guard.
“In elementary school, they had father-daughter doughnut day,” she recalled. “I could never do it. He was always gone.”
Suarez said she once had to choose between greeting her dad at his homecoming or taking a test at school. She chose her dad, and lost points that affected her grade.
I need someone to say: I can help you
Daniela Suarez, North Thurston High School student
Kayla Sarver, 17, from Lakes High, has lived the military lifestyle her whole life.
“It’s basically all I know,” she said.
She’s been in seven schools over the years, each one presenting her with new academic challenges. Each time, Sarver said, “you have to start over. You have to prove yourself all over again.”
She said the level of acceptance for kids like her varies.
“A lot of schools don’t do a good job of accepting military kids,” she said.
“Sometimes teachers don’t understand that you can’t always get it all done,” Belmont said.
Sarver, whose mother died during one of her dad’s deployments, would like to see “more people who can be there for military kids — anything that can help them become themselves again.”
Norma Martinez-Melo, director of Youth Education Support Services at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, moderated the panel. She said there are an estimated 38,000 school-age military kids in Pierce and North Thurston counties. The state superintendent’s office says about 136,000 military families are in Washington.
“Most military families raise children to be as resilient as they can be,” Martinez-Melo said.
She acknowledged the challenges military kids face. But she also asked panelists to talk about the positive experiences they have enjoyed as the daughters of soldiers.
Villarreal said she lived with her family in Germany for a time, and learned to speak German and to appreciate the German culture. She even got to visit a few castles. When she went to a new school, she said, “I was cool. I knew German.”
Belmont moved all the way from Kentucky to Alaska, where she got to witness the aurora borealis, or northern lights.
Sarver said she valued growing up in a diverse atmosphere with “all races, people from all over the world.”
Asked what one thing adults could do to help military kids over the rough spots in their lives, Belmont answered: “Tell them it’s OK. Say ‘I know it hurts. But when you fall down, get right back up.’ ”