11/04/09 — Give-a-hug dolls comfort kids of deployed service members

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Give-a-hug dolls comfort kids of deployed service members

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on November 4, 2009 1:46 PM

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Brianne Saunders, a fourth-grade student at Meadow Lane Elementary School, shows school counselor Vicki Phillips the photo of her deployed father that was placed inside the doll that she was given on Tuesday.

Having a loved one in the military who is deployed overseas can be difficult, especially for a child.

Several years ago, Meadow Lane Elementary School introduced a response to the void, offering six-week support groups for students of deployed parents.

"We don't always know who they will be so it's up to the teachers or the parents to make the referrals," said Michelle Gurley, counselor at the school.

Always looking for ways to keep the group interesting, she discovered "Operation Give a Hug," initially created when a child put her deployed father's picture on a doll she'd been given. The program has since been taken on by the Army, which pays for dolls for children with deployed parents.

It struck a cord with the Meadow Lane counselor.

"It helps comfort military children by giving them special dolls, often referred to as their 'Daddy' or 'Mommy' doll," she said. "Each doll provides a place to put the photo of the deployed parent and give the child a tangible way of relating to that parent. ... I knew this was something that I would love for us to have all the time."

The school was fortunate to tap into the resource, receiving 36 of the dolls. Over the past week, they have distributed 28 to students.

"But that's not all the kids that have parents deployed," Mrs. Gurley noted. "I really think once people find out about the doll, we'll get more referrals."

So far, it has proven to be an effective tool in working with the students whose parents are away from home.

"We had been talking about ways you can cope with deployment throughout the whole group," she said. "At the very end, we read them parts of a story and talked about the doll.

"We'll ask, 'Do you have something at home that you have as a reminder of something of your dad?'"

The answers varied. One boy had a bear and the dad's voice had been recorded and a tape put inside the bear so at night his son could hear it. Others had their own reminders to represent an absent parent, or enjoyed making something toward that end.

"I liked making a welcome home banner for my daddy," said first-grader David Ruiz.

But the dolls, a surprise when they were handed out, proved to be especially popular.

"I like my 'Daddy' doll. I plan to sleep with it," said Caiden Cooper, another first-grader.

"It kind of reminds me of Dad, since he comes back in January," said fourth-grader Brianne Saunders.

"They actually put a picture in during the group so they made it look like daddy immediately," Mrs. Gurley said.

And while the students are fortunate to live in an era where there are cell phones and computers, it is still nice to have a tangible reminder of the missing parent who isn't there to tuck them in at night.

"I hug it a lot and tell it goodnight," said Belinda Carson, a second-grader.

"I slept with mine," added Brianne, who said she calls it her "daddy doll."

"My mom said it was a mini-Papi," said Kaiden Morales, a fourth-grader.

The students couldn't wait to tell their parents about the dolls. Kaiden said Wednesday morning he had sent his dad a text message on Facebook.

"I said, 'I miss you and love you, and I got a doll thingy of you,'" he said.

"I talk to my dad sometimes on the computer, and on the phone," said Belinda, who said they have a Web camera set up so they can see each other. "I told him about the doll and he was laughing when he saw it."

"I can't talk to my Dad that much because I'm at school," Brianne said.

The dolls, which basically are all the same, can take on their own unique appearance once the photo is added. And each child can make it more personalized if they choose.

"I found my dad's old dog tags from when he was in the Army," Kaiden said, gesturing to the identification he now wears on a chain around his neck. "My mom said I could put them on the doll."

As the school year goes on, and counselors learn of other students whose parents have deployed, more support groups will be held. The hope is that funding will be forthcoming to order more dolls.

"We want to apply for some more grants," Mrs. Gurley said.

Ideally, she'd also like to see the "Operation Give a Hug" catch on at other schools.

"Although I did request and have received enough dolls for the students we currently have in deployment groups, we do not have enough for other students who may have a deployed parent throughout the year," she said. "Hopefully, through grants or community donations, more students can benefit from a 'Daddy' or 'Mommy' doll."

But it's not just about giving out dolls, she noted.

"We want the children to come and get some help, have somewhere to turn when their parents are away," she said. "It's just so touching to think what these families go through and what they give up. They sacrifice so much for our country."