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Brianna Burgstrom, Cody Minor, Sgt. Roberto Villaran and Lucas Howard take a break during a hike on a nature trail in Königstuhl, Germany. Twenty childen took part in a camp offered last week by Mannheim’s Army Community Services. The camp was paid for using Army Family Covenant funds.

Brianna Burgstrom, Cody Minor, Sgt. Roberto Villaran and Lucas Howard take a break during a hike on a nature trail in Königstuhl, Germany. Twenty childen took part in a camp offered last week by Mannheim’s Army Community Services. The camp was paid for using Army Family Covenant funds. (Marisa Willis / U.S. Army)

Brianna Burgstrom, Cody Minor, Sgt. Roberto Villaran and Lucas Howard take a break during a hike on a nature trail in Königstuhl, Germany. Twenty childen took part in a camp offered last week by Mannheim’s Army Community Services. The camp was paid for using Army Family Covenant funds.

Brianna Burgstrom, Cody Minor, Sgt. Roberto Villaran and Lucas Howard take a break during a hike on a nature trail in Königstuhl, Germany. Twenty childen took part in a camp offered last week by Mannheim’s Army Community Services. The camp was paid for using Army Family Covenant funds. (Marisa Willis / U.S. Army)

Cody Minor gets up close with a horse at Peitpädagogik Palm in Lampertaheim, Germany.

Cody Minor gets up close with a horse at Peitpädagogik Palm in Lampertaheim, Germany. (Marisa Willis / U.S. Army)

HEIDELBERG, Germany — Sgt. Roberto Villaran, a wounded warrior with a herniated disc, normally spends his time getting treatment at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center and studying online for a college degree.

But when they asked for volunteers to assist with a five-day day camp for special-needs children, Villaran raised his hand. "I figured, hey, I might as well do something for the community," he said. "I’m kind of grateful."

Lucas Howard, a soon-to-be second-grader with attention deficit disorder and a developmental delay, usually doesn’t get too excited about group activities, his mother, Lisa Howard, said. But she signed him up anyway for one of 20 spots in the camp offered last week by Mannheim’s Army Community Services.

It was the start of a beautiful friendship.

"He was just an original," Villaran said. "He’s 7 years old but it was like talking to a 13 year old. He was funny, really cool. He always asked for me."

As for Lucas, his mother said, "The first night he came back and chanted, ‘I love day camp.’ That’s not typical for him," she said. "It really exceeded my expectations."

"It was awesome," Villaran said. "We had a great week."

The camp was offered for the first time in more than 20 years thanks to $5,000 in Family Covenant funds. It was designed to provide enrichment for kids with special needs — with visits to art museums, zoos, and aquariums, rides on trains and horses, parties with bowling and pizza.

And it was free.

"I couldn’t believe it," said Patricia Easter, who sent her son, P.J. "I said, ‘Are you sure?’"

In Mannheim, the camp was organized by Marisa Willis, Exceptional Family Member Program coordinator for ACS. "It took a lot of planning," Willis said. "But it was great. The kids were excited. We were excited. It was an opportunity for us to let our inner child out."

According to the Army, about 16 percent of its families in Europe qualify for the "Exceptional Family Member Program," which provides services to those with special medical or educational needs. According to the Defense Department, more than 100,000 military families have members with special needs.

Since November, the Army in Europe has spent some $800,000 providing about 16,000 hours (up to 40 hours a month) in free care for such families, according to Lynn McCollum, Installation Management Command-Europe’s Army community service director.

The camp did more of that, providing six hours’ daily "respite" care for the kids’ parents. "I got to have more one-on-one time with my daughter," said Howard, whose husband is in Iraq with the 44th Expeditionary Signal Battalion. "I didn’t feel like I was sending him to a baby sitter. He was so enriched. My daughter was envious."

"It was a huge plus for me — just to know he could go and enjoy himself. It was also nice to show up and not think, ‘Is my kid going to stand out?’ We could talk and support each other."

The Heidelberg ACS also organized a similar day camp for special-needs children the week before Mannheim’s. That’s where Easter learned how her son, who is 10, autistic, and does not speak, would do in such a setting.

She was nervous at first, Easter said. "If he doesn’t feel he’s understood, he can become frustrated," she said.

But as Easter watched P.J. calmly board the big bus with the expert counselors and their helpers, she started to relax.

P.J. turned out to be one happy camper.

"When we picked him up, he was just the happiest little thing," Easter said. "He had a blast. Just getting him out and having fun … You just don’t know."

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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