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Joseph Douglass, a counselor at Aviano Elementary School in Italy, watches third-graders Cameron O'Steen, left, and Travis Matt during a recent lunch-hour visit to the Clubhouse. The school set up an extra classroom as a place for children of deployed servicemembers to send e-mail, play or talk about any problems they might be having during the deployment.

Joseph Douglass, a counselor at Aviano Elementary School in Italy, watches third-graders Cameron O'Steen, left, and Travis Matt during a recent lunch-hour visit to the Clubhouse. The school set up an extra classroom as a place for children of deployed servicemembers to send e-mail, play or talk about any problems they might be having during the deployment. (Kent Harris / S&S)

Joseph Douglass, a counselor at Aviano Elementary School in Italy, watches third-graders Cameron O'Steen, left, and Travis Matt during a recent lunch-hour visit to the Clubhouse. The school set up an extra classroom as a place for children of deployed servicemembers to send e-mail, play or talk about any problems they might be having during the deployment.

Joseph Douglass, a counselor at Aviano Elementary School in Italy, watches third-graders Cameron O'Steen, left, and Travis Matt during a recent lunch-hour visit to the Clubhouse. The school set up an extra classroom as a place for children of deployed servicemembers to send e-mail, play or talk about any problems they might be having during the deployment. (Kent Harris / S&S)

Tyler Wine shows off the identification card that allows him access to the Clubhouse, a place at Aviano Elementary School in Italy where children of deployed servicemembers can hang out.

Tyler Wine shows off the identification card that allows him access to the Clubhouse, a place at Aviano Elementary School in Italy where children of deployed servicemembers can hang out. (Kent Harris / S&S)

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — Having a parent deployed for a long stretch can be tough on a kid.

Especially when that parent is a big help with homework.

That’s the case with Tyler Wine, whose father, Senior Master Sgt. James Wine, has been deployed for several months. But the third-grader and dozens of other pupils at Aviano Elementary School have been receiving special attention lately.

Faced with a series of large deployments on base, the school set up the Clubhouse — a converted classroom where qualified pupils can send e-mails, play games and talk to one another during lunch hours.

“Some of them come up and send e-mails to their parents,” said Joseph Douglass, a school counselor. “Some just come up and play games.”

A school counselor, the school psychologist or one of the two school administrators is always on hand. Principal Melissa Klopfer said the specialists can act as a sounding board or provide individual or group counseling if needed.

“They’re just accessible to the kids if they need them,” she said.

So formal counseling sessions aren’t on the agenda. Instead, counselors just watch children while they’re playing or sending messages to their deployed parents. Klopfer said the atmosphere is less intimidating than a formal one-on-one counseling session.

Not that most of the children seem to even notice the adults are around. The Clubhouse is open only during lunch periods. Pupils are told to eat lunch first, then visit afterward. They are issued identification cards, granting them “membership.”

Tyler says he visits “every time it rains.” Like other members, he occasionally brings along a friend.

“There seems to be a lot of curiosity from the children whose families are not deployed,” Klopfer said of the Clubhouse. “That’s why we let [members] bring a friend when they want to.”

A bank of computers has been installed in the classroom, and pupils have been given e-mail accounts so they can communicate with their deployed parents. There are also board games. A tent has been set up in the middle of the room. No campfires, though.

“We’ve got some [pupils] that are in here every day,” Klopfer said, estimating that at least 80 children are participating regularly.

“I’d say it’s probably closer to 100,” Douglass said, taking over his watch after a large group of first-graders departed.

Klopfer said the school decided to try the concept after there was some concern that it hadn’t done enough for children of deployed servicemembers in the wake of a large deployment in 2002. Currently more than 700 active-duty servicemembers — composed largely from the Air Force’s 603rd Air Control Squadron and 510th Fighter Squadron and the Army’s Company B, 5th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment — are deployed to southwest Asia.

The 555th Fighter Squadron is scheduled to replace the 510th on the next rotation. So Klopfer said the school plans to keep the Clubhouse open through the rest of the school year.

Children who have parents deployed elsewhere are also eligible to join. And they can generally visit awhile after their parent returns.

For third-grader Cameron O’Steen, that should be only a few weeks. He said he’s been counting the days until his father, Staff Sgt. John O’Steen, returns from the desert.

“I miss him a lot,” he said.

But Cameron said he’s enjoyed hanging out at the Clubhouse. And he’s been helping Mom take care of his 2-year-old sister, Kaylin, at home.

“It’s hard,” he said with a serious expression.

The school hopes that the Clubhouse is making at least part of his life a little easier.

author picture
Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.
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