Family Matters: Interview with Debbie Fink of Operation C.H.A.M.P.S. (Part 1 of 2)

Chazz Pratt
Occasional Contributor

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There’s an army of over 700,000 of these tough fighters spanning the ranks of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard. None of them received much in the form of medals or awards for their service. These tireless heroes continue to fight nonetheless. They remain encouraged in spite of being tested again and again. They show resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity. As you read this, they continue to selflessly serve.


Can you guess the name of this elite fighting force?


Whether you call them Family Members, “Brats”, or Dependents, the youngest of these might be better known as “C.H.A.M.P.S.”! Why? Military life presents unique challenges for the younger set within any military family. Each branch of service provides ongoing support for military families designed to make sure morale stays high at home. You should take full advantage of all the available support resources.

But, there’s something else worth mentioning. This affects all Americans, at home or abroad, whether they’re serving or supporting our Military.


There’s a “disconnect” between two communities! No, I’m not referring to what one branch of military service offers that the other branch may not; I’m referring to a couple of communities you know very well – The Military Community and The Civilian Community and their ability to better understand each other.


In this edition of GOING CIVILIAN, you’ll meet Debbie Fink and learn about a unique program whose goal is not only about uplifting Military Children, but also bridging the gap between the military and civilian communities.


Charles “Chazz” Pratt III (CP3): Tell me a little bit about Operation C.H.A.M.P.S. – Child Heroes Attached to Military Personnel – and how it got started?

Debbie Fink (DF): Operation CHAMPS is a public health and education initiative that was launched in October 2012, to celebrate and support America’s children of the military and their families, and to build the bridge of understanding between our military and civilian worlds.  Our children’s book – titled “The Little C.H.A.M.P.S – Child Heroes Attached to Military Personnel” – is the cornerstone for this initiative.  There are ~718,000 6-12 year old Champs (the initiative’s target audience) across all five military branches.  We also aim to reach and teach the Champs’ countless civilian classmates.


CP3: Your website says that Operation CHAMPS engages civilian communities in giving back to military families. How do you go about doing this engagement?

DF: Operation CHAMPS, newly launched at the University of Maryland, offers four ways to engage civilians in giving back to military families:  1) CHAMPSitting Program:  training college students and other civilians to be ‘militarily culturally competent’ CHAMPSitters, offering free Champ(baby)sitting to local military families.  2)  “DutyFree Fun” Program:  engaging local businesses to donate free gifts (e.g., a dinner out for a military couple; a spa package for a spouse of a deployed Servicemember; respite for a spouse of a Wounded Warrior, etc.).  3)  “Campus Corps” Program:  organizing volunteers to help out at other military-connected organizational events.  4) “The Little CHAMPS” Program: overseeing the national distribution of “The Little CHAMPS” book, as well as the distribution of the  (Operation CHAMPS) Traveling Classroom CHAMPKit.


CP3: Some people place a patriotic bumper sticker on their car or attend a military-themed parade as a show of gratitude to our military. How does Operation CHAMPS build upon this level of patriotism?

DF: Bumper stickers and parade attendance – it’s all good.  Though for Americans seeking opportunities to make an immediate difference in the lives of our military families, Operation CHAMPS offers easy opportunities to do so.  An individual who donates $10 knows that a copy of “The Little CHAMPS” book is going directly to a Champ, providing support, comfort, and coping skills to the Champ and family. 


Those individuals, PTAS, or local businesses that sponsor a Traveling Classroom CHAMPKit know that they are making a profound and immediate difference in the lives of hundreds and hundreds of American children: classroom by classroom, school by school.


Operation CHAMPS’ UMD program will soon be growing to other campuses nationwide, at state universities located near large military installations.


CP3: The Military is definitely a community within a community. There’s often a “disconnect” between the two communities that highlights the need for a better understanding of military life. How does Operation CHAMPS bridge the gap between the military and civilian worlds?

DF: Only 37 percent of military families currently live on military installations; the remaining 63 percent live in over 4,000 civilian communities nationwide. They are our neighbors, coworkers and friends, but the challenges that military children and families face are not widely understood by their civilian peers. With less than one percent of our Nation serving in our military, we believe it is the civic duty of the other 99 percent to understand, appreciate, and support our Servicemembers and their families.   “The Little CHAMPS” book not only helps Champs cope with their challenging lifestyle, but also educates their civilian classmates and school community about military life, while providing simple ways to build welcoming and supportive communities for military families.


We firmly believe that education raises awareness; awareness often translates into acts of gratitude; and acts of gratitude help bridge the gap between our military and civilian worlds.  Through our educational book and awareness-raising programs, our initiative bridges the gap child by child, school by school, community by community.  Working with our growing Alliance – military-connected organizations and now non-military, too – is a critical component to bridging the gap.


CP3: Champs face unique challenges. Their needs are exclusive to military life and specific to the career choice of their parents. What are some of these challenges they face? 

DF: First, let me highlight the benefits:  Champs learn and grow from their military-connected lifestyle:  they are worldly; and, due to their lifestyle, often absorb and exhibit vital virtues, such as:  flexibility, adaptability, patriotism, loyalty, honor, gratitude, citizenship, commitment, and more. 


Now let’s address some of their challenges, remembering that when one member of a family serves in the military, the entire family serves. Facts:

  • Champs move 6 to 9 times over the course of their school years.  The stressors that come with moving are well-documented in the body of psychology: in fact, moving is one of the top three stressors in life.
  • Champs must deal with inconsistent academic requirements as they move around.  Differences in State requirements for academic and athletic participation have negative impacts on achievement and participation.  Slow but steady progress is being made to standardize school requirements, which will help Champs tremendously. 
  • 34% of military parents are “less or not confident” that their children’s school is responsive to the unique aspects of military life (93% attend non-DoDEA schools).
  • The majority of Champs in public schools “feel their classmates and teachers do not understand what they are going through.”
  • More than 700,000 Champs (0-18) have endured one or more parental deployments.
  • Deployments take a toll on Servicemembers physically, mentally and emotionally, and take a significant toll on the families and children – whether it is pre-deployment angst; deployment fears; or reintegration struggles.

CP3: How do you help Champs overcome these challenges?

DF: We emphasize five keys to constructively overcome their challenges and build resiliency:  1) Asking for (and receiving) help from trusted adults.  2) Communication.  3) Community.  4) Feeling special and valued.    5)  Learning and practicing virtues.


There’s a lot of dialogue within the military community about the importance of building resiliency to overcome challenges.  My pedagogic philosophy is that we build resiliency by building character.   I firmly believe that virtues (such as courage or compassion) are the tools that we all need in order to face what life dishes out in a constructive, or resilient manner.  The more we focus and build upon virtues, the more resilient we become.  Our book and its Curricular Supplement reinforce this.  With that said, it also focuses on the importance of identifying and expressing emotions; helping Champs figure out how to handle these emotions; and how, when, and where to get help. 


We deliver the key messages mentioned earlier:  that it is a child’s right to ask for (and to receive) help.  S/he does not need to cope alone.  Champs are part of a community, and it is the responsibility of the adult community to provide the support, comfort, and guidance that our Champs need and deserve.  They can also learn to help themselves and to help each other.  Nonetheless, we adults need to claim responsibility to help them navigate through their military-connected challenges. 


CP3: You’ve traveled the globe sharing your support and program to Champs with the USO. Do you notice any differences between Champs located in the US versus those living in foreign soil?

DF: Absolutely.  I’ve had the honor of ‘edu-taining’ over 10,000 Champs during my USO tours to Europe and Asia.  I think the primary difference between our Champs residing overseas and our Champs in the US is that Champs overseas are all part of the DoDEA (Dept. of Defense Education Activity) school system.  Champs are the majority in these schools.  Their teachers and classmates understand what they’re going through.  The school system is structured to support them, recognizing the challenges they face.


Yet according to a principal of a school I visited on my 2011 USO Tour in Germany, over 90% of her Champs had a parent currently deployed in harm’s way.  So it is not uncommon that even when these Champs and families have been relocated across the world, the Servicemember is often deployed even further away.  Still, while living on foreign soil, Champs are among adults and children who understand what they’re going through, and seem to have more communal support.


In contrast, this is not the case in the US.  Champs in public schools often “feel their classmates and teachers don’t understand what they’re going through.”  More often than not, a Champ can go through a school day where people (including teachers) are entirely unaware that his/her parent serves our country; or that his/her parent is deployed; or that a parent has just come back and is dealing with PTSD or a Traumatic Brain Injury or other injuries or wounds; or that parents have grown apart and are discussing divorce; or that the child has just been told they would be PCSing (moving) again in a few month’s time . . . As a Nation, it is our Civic Duty to cultivate a more sensitive school climate and informed community here in the US. 


CP3: What are the key “take home” messages that civilian children discover? How do they gain a better appreciation for Champs and the military lifestyle?

DF: We had the pleasure of co-piloting a program alongside our cherished partner United Through Reading (UTR), at a public school in Fairfax County, VA.  One-third of the students were Champs; two-thirds were civilians.  Prior to our arrival, the Champs didn’t even know others were Champs!  So right there, a Champ support group was born.  UTR gave each student a copy of the book.  We played a video, recorded by UTR, of a deployed parent (in Afghanistan) reading the story to and with the children.  He spoke to/with the kids; for example, asking them to find Afghanistan on the map.  The children read along with him. 


Over the next few months, the fabulous educator piloted a few of the classroom extensions from our Operation CHAMPS Curricular Supplement.  We returned on Flag Day (June 14) to a classroom of children who had undergone a transformation individually and collectively from this experience. 


The Champs felt understood, appreciated, supported, and PROUD.  The civilians shared how much they had learned about military life, about military challenges, about their peers, about friendship.  They bonded over commonalities and celebrated differences.  The ensuing dialogue was remarkable.  The classroom’s bridge of understanding was built between its civilian and CHAMPS.  We continue to build this program out with UTR.


CP3: You have a strong group of supporters for this initiative! Who have you partnered with and what results have you seen? 

DF: Yes, our Alliance of strong and ever growing supporters for this initiative has been paramount!  For the book’s first printing, branding our “Statement of Support,” we had the following military-connected organizations:  The USO; United Through Reading; AUSA Family Programs; Military Child Education Coalition; Armed Services YMCA; American Red Cross; Operation Homefront; and National Military Family Association. As we head back to press, we are so pleased to add the following organizations to our Alliance:  Air Force Association; Navy League; Marine Corps League; Coast Guard Foundation; Blue Star Families; and our first non-military connected organization:  the National Association for Elementary School Principals (NAESP).