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Military children have fun, hang out at Memorial Camp

DECATUR, Ill. -- At 4-H Memorial Camp in Monticello, towels hung outside cabins, activities are announced via loudspeaker and children play in the distance. At all appearances it's a standard summer camp.

But round the corner and a member of the National Guard in fatigues leads campers through a set of drills. At another station, kids age 8 to 15 applied camouflage face paint. In the dining hall, photos of campers and their military parents spread across the Heroes Wall.

Last week, 185 kids from seven states and representing all branches of the military came to Memorial Camp for one week of free activities.

Golden Corral funded its first camp for military children in 2011, with priority for those whose parent was wounded, disabled or killed in action. Since then, it has expanded to 20 camps in 16 states.

Shirley Dilworth, the lead child and youth program coordinator for the Illinois National Guard, is based out of Springfield, but travels all over in her civilian role as an advocate for military youth.

"You never know what kind of support they've lost," Dilworth said.

She serves as an advocate between schools and military families, so counselors understand what's going on at home could be a reason for struggles at school.

Since October 2001, more than 2.1 million men and women have been deployed. Nearly half, 44 percent, have children.

"It can create a lot of turmoil at home," she said.

But camp is an opportunity to forget all that. The children are kept busy from when they're dropped off Sunday until pick up on Friday. The activities include crafts, archery, rock climbing and swimming. On Thursday they got a taste of the military life, going through drills, braiding paracord bracelets and trying MREs, meal ready-to-eat.

National Guard squad leader Derek Torres came from Crestwood to lead campers through basic tactical movements.

"Of course they're not going to do it right, but it's seeing them put that effort out," Torres said.

He also works with the Warrior to Warrior an outreach program for Illinois National Guard members.

"This is another way to reach out," Torres said.

Marie and Bridget Delaney, both 12, and their older brother Anthony, 15, came to Memorial Camp from Decatur.

While they haven't had to move, it's hard for their friends to understand what it's like when their father is gone for months at a time. The twins were nervous about a sleep-over camp, but are even more nervous when their Air Force father was deployed,

"I miss him," Marie said.

The 4-H Memorial Camp hosted Camp Corral for the first time last year.

"It's a tribute to our military from our roots," said 4-H Camp Director Curt Sinclair.

The camp opened in 1948, a donation from Robert Allerton, dedicated to the memory of Illinois 4-H members and alumni who died in World War II.

About half of last year's campers came back again.

That includes Tommy Clark of Elgin, who returned at the age of 16 to be a counselor for the whole summer. His father has done six combat tours with the Army, and came back from one with a leg full of shrapnel after his Humvee hit a mine. Like many military families, Tommy has had to move about every two years.

"You lose a lot of friends fast," Tommy said.

But the camp provides a chance for the military children to make friends in an open environment.

"Here, it's like no one knows anyone so you have to make friends," Tommy said.

esteele@herald-review.com

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