On Jan 4, approximately 70 children and their families gathered in the Building 17 atrium for a day of singing, dancing and reading.
The event was organized by a nonprofit organization in association with a chain of national hotels in order to recognize children in families serving the armed forces.
“When one person serves the entire family serves and military life, especially for children, comes with a lot of challenges,” said Jennifer Fink, founder and CEO of the nonprofit organization. “Their experiences are so different [compared to] what their civilian peers go through. We wanted this event to celebrate and validate these children, who sacrifice so much.”
Much of the event was inspired by a children’s book written by the organization. Loren Nalewanski, vice president and global brand manager for a national hotel chain who helped organize the event, read the first two chapters of the book aloud as children encircling his rocking chair listened.
A copy of the book was given to everyone in attendance in hopes of recognizing the children of service members and educating children in civilian families about military life.
“Research shows that [children in military families] feel like their educators and civilian classmates don’t understand what they are going through,” said Debbie Fink, vice president of the organization who co-authored the book with her daughter, Jennifer Fink. “We cannot expect [civilians] to understand them without an educational tool, which is why we wrote it. [However, we also] wanted to show a diverse representation of military connected children and provide coping mechanisms when facing challenges.”
Being raised in a military household, Nalewanski participated in the project because he identified with the characters in the book and praised the story for its portrayal of real world concerns.
“It’s a story book that captures and identifies the lives and the things that go on in the minds of children,” said Nalewanski. “As much as the mom and the dad go through with relocating and finding something new, there’s [also] a significant impact on the kids…It brings recognition to these child heroes, creates a better connection between the private and public sector and makes sure that children aren’t forgotten.”
After the reading, children engaged in a variety of family friendly activities. Many joined their parents in chairs and continued to read. Others retired to the gym to join in supervised basketball games and hula-hoop contests. Several musical selections were lead by Debbie Fink on violin as Jennifer Fink danced with the children. Naval Support Activity Bethesda Commanding Officer Capt. David Bitonti sang fighting songs from all five branches of the military as children joined in, marching in place.
Approximately 20 volunteers overseeing the event were participants from the nonprofit’s newly announced baby sitters program. Volunteers consist mainly of local college students who have passed background checks and completed courses in military cultural competence, basic child care, CPR and basic first aid.
Towards the end of the program, Nalewanski spoke to children about personal responsibility, urging them to volunteer and help those in need. The national hotel chain he represented provided stitch-less blankets and encouraged children to assemble as many as possible. The blankets were later donated to children in the Walter Reed Military Medical Center Pediatrics Ward by the volunteer program’s giant dog mascot.
If you would like to learn more about Operation C.H.A.M.P.S or its programs contact Jennifer Fink at 301-758-6717 or Debbie Fink at 301-518-1715.