Operation Military Kids


Angela Harkins, lead state child and youth coordinator for the Michigan Army National Guard shares about the unique needs of military families and the importance of community and partnerships.

July 1, 2019

Operation Military Kids text over an American flag.

Jeff Dwyer: Michigan State University Extension and Michigan 4-H are committed to supporting military children, youth and their families through programming and community education. Since October 2010, MSU Extension and Michigan 4-H have reached over 4300 military youth and adults with educational programs, specifically designed for military families.

Military families are in every community across the state of Michigan. MSU Extension and Michigan 4-H are working with our military partners to connect and support children, youth and families. I'm Jeff Dwyer, director of Michigan State University Extension. My guest on Partnerships and Peninsulas today is Angela Harkins, who facilitates our partnership and is the lead state child and youth coordinator for the Michigan Army National Guard. Welcome Angela.

Angela Harkins: Thank you, thanks for having me.

Jeff Dwyer: How many military families are there in Michigan and how many include children and youth?

Angela Harkins: We have approximately 8,000 soldiers and 2,000 airmen who are with the Michigan National Guard. Those are the service members who we keep record on. In the state, we have active duty, we have Coast Guard, Air Force, Navy. Probably add about 10,000 to that. We have about 20,000 service members in the state. With that, we say that every service member has a family, whether they have children, they have a spouse, mom and dad, aunt and uncles. We consider all of them to have a family. With that, we have about 13,000 plus military children and youth in the state of Michigan.

Jeff Dwyer: Very good. What are some of the special needs of military families? I know that deployment brings about certain experiences that many of the rest of us don't experience. Also, returning from deployment ...

Angela Harkins: Correct.

Jeff Dwyer: ...is a different set of experiences. Could you talk about that and other things that are unique to military families.

Angela Harkins: With our military families in Michigan, they're very unique. We don't have an active duty base in the state of Michigan. They don't have a place to go to get resources and to get help when needed. In this state, we do have what's called family assistance centers. There are 10 of them throughout the state of Michigan where these service members can go to get help. With our service members it's unique because they find their support within the community. That's why we think community support is such a big thing for the community to show their support to the service members.

Just being geographically dispersed throughout the state, that is one of the biggest things that we work with to one, try to identify the military families, the children and youth, and then to provide them with the support that they need, especially during deployment time. That's when they're in more need. We see on our side, the National Guard soldiers, when they're getting ready for a deployment, we can identify them. It's all the other military families in the state that we can't identify.

And then, if they don't ask for help, we continue to try to help them, but they're just dispersed throughout the whole state. We're just there to support during the deployment cycle. That's one of the biggest times and then throughout the rest of the year, just because they're a unique population. The soldiers are away from home a lot. Whether it's training or deployment.

Jeff Dwyer: I'm intrigued by the Michigan National Guards commitment to this. I think most of us in the state of Michigan ... Well, let me speak for myself. I think I am aware of the Michigan National Guard, in the summer time, when I see troops on the roads, heading to a week or two experience. I think I'm aware of it, when I remember my cousin, who spends a weekend a month with the Michigan National Guard.

It's not just the experience of staying up to speed in terms of new equipment and tactics and those sorts of things that might occur on those weekends and those week long experiences. The Michigan National Guard has a much deeper commitment to those individuals and their families. Could you talk a little, bit about that? I don't think most of us know anything about that.

Angela Harkins: Right. We are committed to support our families. Family comes first is what we always say in our family programs office. Our commitment is to the family; it  comes first. If you take care of the family, then the service member can go off to training. They have drill once a weekend or for two weeks in the summer time. The Michigan National Guard as a whole has grown that we have partnerships with the Virgin Islands now. We have partnerships with Latvia, Liberia. We have service members who are going over there all the time, which is still a deployment. It's not a deployment for war. People don't understand that. They are going places for a lot longer time.

They're still deployed. The Guard as a whole has a commitment to support the families because if the family's supported, then the service member can focus on their mission which is to train, make sure that they're ready for their next mission, when it comes up in the future. We've really been pushing that and to be able to bring in community partners to help support the families. The more we have supporting them, the more the soldier can focus on ...

Jeff Dwyer: Well, thank you first and foremost to you and your husband for your service.

Angela Harkins: Thank you.

Jeff Dwyer:  I think that we need to be regularly reminded that we don't have the life we have in the United States and the state of Michigan without the commitment of people like you and your husband, your family and millions of others who have served this country over time. We're grateful for that. As you may recall, I had the opportunity to become director of MSU Extension about three years ago.

 Prior to that, I was unaware of ... Although I was greatly appreciative of MSU Extension and all that it does in so many, different areas, frankly when I started in this job, I was unaware of the significant work that we do with you and others, with military families and with youth. Could you tell us a little bit about how that relationship started and what it's meant from your point of view over the last several years?

Angela Harkins: Absolutely. I came into this position in 2006. At that point, the relationship and the partnership was already established through Operation Military Kids, which was a Department of Defense funded program that partnered with the land grant universities. All the states had it. We went into that partnership. Our focus was to partner with the university to provide programming and support to military families and kids. That's when the partnership started. We provided all kinds of programs for the families, whether it was day camps, educational programs, and volunteer trainings to get the volunteer support through the state to help with our programs that we were running. The program really started before my time through the operation military kids.

Beyond that, me working with the staff with the 4-H, we built the program and offered programs to our military families. And then, eventually the funding went away for the Operation Military Kids through Department of Defense. We continued on with Michigan State University 4-H in our partnership because we found that it helped support the families. It was a successful partnership. It's something that grew and it's something that we kind of went together and it was almost like we were one, if that makes sense.

The 4-H almost supported all of our yellow ribbon events, which is the pre-deployment and the post deployment. We partnered together and came in and provided educational and life skill workshops for the kids to help prepare them for the deployment and also prepare them for their solider coming home. The partnership, we just took it and kept going with it after the Department of Defense ended Operation Military Kids. It's just been a great experience. I think without them, our program wouldn't be as successful as it is right now.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, one of the things that's exciting from my point of view, you've referred earlier to the fact that military families are all over the state of Michigan.

Angela Harkins: Correct.

Jeff Dwyer: It's hard to get resources in any domain everywhere.

Angela Harkins: Correct.

Jeff Dwyer: One of the things we're thrilled about in this relationship that we have with you is that 4-H is everywhere. We have 4-H in all 83 counties. As you know this year, we have 219,000 youth in 4-H and 16,000 adult volunteers. We can always do more. I think the opportunity that we've had with you to pilot and model a successful relationship or program for example and then think about, well, how can we get that over here in this part of the state and over there in that part of the state. That's a big part of what we're trying to do as well. We're grateful for your partnership in that.

As you know, we've also just hired a veteran's liaison in Extension, Adam Ingrao. We're excited about that as well. We, in many ways, we think that there are other parts of Extension that we need to better connect to military veterans and their families and kids. The work that we're doing now in doing SNAP-ed outreach, to veteran's families and making sure that they're aware of the program and aware of the opportunities and the resources available to them is very important. What are some of, the new things we're dong together that you're particularly excited about?

Angela Harkins: A couple of the new programs that ... I wouldn't really say they're new, but they're the successful things. We've offered them quite a few times. We've had such great feedback from, especially our military youth, is the Mad City Money Training and then the Real Colors. Those are things that the youth come back to me after the first weekend that we held one of these trainings and said, "We really need that. We really need to teach it to all of our military youth." It provides them the life skills going from high school to college. It provides them with learning their personality traits to be able to work with others.

A lot of our youth were scared that at college, they were going  to face not being able to work with others and to be able to work in groups and work independently. Teaching them their life skills. I think these two things were really beneficial. We have a very strong youth council in the state of Michigan, which is made up of 13 to 17 military youth throughout the whole state who meet quarterly. With our partnership with 4-H, we bring in those trainings. It provides them those skills, to use throughout high school and then off to college.

It's really great when they come back and they plan their last youth council meeting this last June, to be able to ... Right before they left for college, they actually asked for those two trainings. They asked for 4-H to come in, and so that they could once again go through it, and then also that the younger youth could go through the training. And then, the Mad City money helped them with reality of spending money and what becoming adult is. It made them very thankful for their parents and what their parents have given them. Those are two of our big trainings that we partner with 4-H with that the kids absolutely love.

Jeff Dwyer: That's really fantastic. Well Angela, one of the cornerstones as you know of 4-H is community, the sense of community, leadership development, it's often about the substance that a youth might be involved in. They learn so much more. In the examples you've given, that sense of community comes through, the need to talk about what it's going to be like when mom or dad is on deployment, and what it's going to be like when mom or dad comes back from deployment. That's something we need to address as a whole community. Could you talk a little bit about the sense of community and how that drives the work that you're doing in the National Guard?

Angela Harkins: Yes. Community is very important. Since they're so geographically dispersed throughout the state, they look to their own community where they live for support and for resources to use while their service member is deployed. We really stress that community, to get out there, let them hear your story. We need to rally as a community to support these families, and to provide them with resources to just show our support. Community's a really big thing. The military's a special community. We will give back. They just want to see the support in their community.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, it's terrific. I couldn't agree with you more, that we all owe veterans and families so much who have given so much. I think the more we can do together to remind communities broadly defined about how we need to provide support. We're certainly thrilled as part of MSU Extension and 4-H to be working closely with you. Could you give me a specific story that comes to mind, or maybe a favorite story you have of how one of the programs we've worked on together has helped a particular child, and perhaps even their whole family?

Angela Harkins: Yes. We did speak out for military kids, which is a program that brings in the military youth to help them share their story. The family programs office, we stress to family members and service members to always share their story. Not everybody understands it. If you share your story, then we're educating the community. We brought in military youth on a weekend and then they came in. They were able to share their story through writing, whether it be a story, a poem, or a letter to their parents. They were provided with skills to help write that.

We had a family where the teens were pretty much shut off from their parents. Their dad had multiple deployments. Mom wasn't able to communicate with what her kids needs were. Through the 4-H program of, Speak Out Military Kids, these kids came in. And then, on Sunday, they were able to share their stories with their family in attendance. Their oldest child got up and read her poems. The mom was speechless.

Through that poem, she was able to share her fears, what she felt being a military youth was like, and just what she needed and how she felt about her dad. She was proud of her dad serving. Her parents were able to hear that through a different way, that they weren't able to connect with her. That's always a story that always sticks out that I will never forget. Just to see, our youth find a way to share their story. We're always telling them to share it.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, I think it's a great story and a great example. I think in this day and age, that's important, right, to get kids away from their technology, to really give them an opportunity to share what they're really thinking and feeling. Those opportunities seem to be less and less these days.

Angela Harkins: They are.

Jeff Dwyer: If we have military families listening, who might wish to learn more, or people who have friends or neighbors who are military families and just want to say, "Hey. Do you know about these opportunities," how could they learn more?

Angela Harkins: By contacting the Michigan National Guard family programs office. Our family programs is basically the umbrella of many programs that support military families. We have child and youth programs, we have our family assistance centers, we have our family writing and support systems, which are our family readiness groups supports, survivor outreach. We have many programs that fall under.

We have many resources throughout every community in the state that can help them, so they can contact their family programs office. The number to contact them is 5-1-7-4-8-1-9-8-9-3. That is a general number. We can provide them with resources. Even the community can contact. We're always looking for volunteer help. We're always looking to get the community involved. And then, from there we'll put them in the right direction.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, we are grateful at Michigan State University Extension and certainly in our 4-H program, to have the opportunity to work closely with you Angela and with all of your colleagues. You can also get more information about these programs by going to Google and putting in Michigan State University Extension and you'll learn more about the programs we're doing together. We can also get you to further information directly from the National Guard or others. This is Partnerships in Peninsulas. My name is Jeff Dwyer. I have the privilege of being the director of Michigan State University Extension. My guest today has been Angela Harkins. Thank you very much for being here today, Angela.

Angela Harkins: Thank you for having me.