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Volunteering with the Stars

Balloons with messages written for deceased military members by their children were released at Snowball Express in Dallas, Dec. 9, 2017. Balloon send-offs offer children a chance to share a special message with those they have lost. (Courtesy photo)

More than 1,700 family members and mentors gathered for the Snowball Express balloon release in Dallas, Dec. 9, 2017. The event brings together children of fallen military members and gives them a chance to relate to other children going through the same experiences. (Courtesy photo)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. (AFNS) -- She felt exhausted, mentally, physically, and emotionally. Seeing what these children went through on a daily basis was enough to break her heart. To her they were so strong, and being able to give them a safe place to be vulnerable was an amazing opportunity. All she wanted to do was to hug them and take away their pain.

Tech. Sgt. Rebecca Place, 21st Medical Squadron primary care element noncommissioned officer in charge, and two other volunteers participated in Snowball Express in Dallas, Dec. 9-13, 2017. Snowball Express is an all-expenses paid event for children of fallen military members. This event is meant to offer them five days of fun, hope, friendship and new memories during the holiday season.

This is not the first volunteer event these volunteers have attended that caters to Gold Star families. This was the first Snowball Express for two of them, however, they have all volunteered with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. TAPS is a support program for anyone who has lost a loved one in the military. They offer seminars, camps, retreats and online chat groups so families never have to feel alone.

These programs are meant to provide emotional support and healing for families who have lost military family members. They also give these families a chance to meet each other and form new bonds with others who have gone through similar situations.

“These kids’ worlds have been turned upside down by a loss, then a secondary loss when they were disconnected from their military communities,” said Marnie Herbert, 21st Medical Squadron mental health technician. “They are reconnecting with others just like them. They support each other during the grief process and help each other not to feel so alone.”

These events give military members a chance to see the impact they have on the families of the fallen. Place started her journey with the TAPS program back in 2001. At the time, she was stationed in Washington D.C. as a member of the United States Air Force Honor Guard. After spending months performing funeral ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery, she realized that she didn’t really get to interact with the families as much as she had hoped.

“Once I volunteered at my first TAPS Nationals over Memorial Day weekend, I was hooked,” Herbert said. “This was a way to give back to these families and let them keep their military connection.”

TAPS events are meant to give grieving families a safe space and the tools to help them heal, and to connect them with other families that understand what they are going through. These events are powerful and emotional, and not just for the families involved, but also for the mentors. The staff makes sure that mentors are also getting proper self-care and support.

During these events some mentors can feel overwhelmed, or find themselves reliving past griefs. For these instances, chaplains are always available for the mentors to speak to, or they can step out and take a break before returning to their mentee.

“I think there’s something very powerful and humbling about being a support for a hurting child,” said Herbert. “So many military members have also experienced loss themselves and I’ve seen healing during the mentor’s journey by drawing on the strength of the kids.”

Herbert explained how volunteering at these events can really help military members see how they are part of a big community. For some, it offers comfort knowing that should something happen to them, there are people who are going to make sure their families are taken care of.

“TAPS really piqued my interest as I work in mental health, but I’m also a military spouse and have young kids whose identity is framed around being raised in the military lifestyle,” said Herbert. “It was so touching to watch kids who have attended before reach out to the first time attendees and show them the ropes.”

At the end of these events, mentors are encouraged to continue their relationship with their mentee, in hopes that when they attend another event they will be paired again. This helps create a level of comfort for the child to help continue their journey with someone who already has an understanding of their situation.

“The bonds that you form with these kids are incredible,” says Place. “I’ve kept in contact with many of my ‘kids’ over the years and have watched them grow into amazing young men and women who are now doing great things in the world.”

It might seem difficult to imagine discussing grief with a child. Place says there can be a fear that the child won’t like you and that you might say something wrong. She explained that if you just follow the child’s lead, then everything will be OK.

The very first event that Herbert attended was a TAPS Suicide Survivor Seminar. She was nervous about the heaviness of the event, and that the connection with her child wouldn’t be as organic as everyone said it would be.

“Here I am, a 33-year-old adult, worried that this kid wouldn’t like me,” says Herbert. “Just the opposite happened-- we were perfect for each other.”

Herbert continued by explaining, these kids really look up to the mentors that volunteer at these events. They provide a level of support that influences them greatly.

“I kept hearing different survivors during Snowball Express saying that once they saw a TAPS person, they knew they would be okay,” said Place. “They have a level of trust in us that we can help them with anything. You form bonds with them that you didn’t think you could.”

Herbert feels these events offer up a great opportunity to help out in the military community and make a difference in the life of a child who has lost so much. Each experience is unique and has a different impact on the mentee and the mentor.

“One thing is very clear,” said Herbert. “Every volunteer leaves having learned a life-changing lesson. Each lesson is personal to the individual, but it’s exactly what they need at that moment.”

To find upcoming TAPS events near you go to www.TAPS.org.

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