Empty dance studios. Darkened classrooms and gyms. Quiet soccer fields.
These are unexpected consequences of the pandemic and the extracurricular activities families enjoyed pre-pandemic. But for National Guard and Reserve families with deployed service members, the closure of school would signal the beginning of what would be a long year alone and without the extras they once enjoyed to keep kids engaged.
One organization was determined to bring as much “normal” as possible to these families during the pandemic. Our Military Kids (OMK), a nonprofit based out of northern Virginia, has been providing grants for extracurricular activities to children of deployed National Guard and Reserve members and children of the severely injured for the last 17 years.
OMK focuses on those young dependents of the National Guard and Reserve because they are often not connected to a military installation or may be the only military family in their community. And children of the severely injured are as important because they too are not often connected to a base or unit, but still feel the effects of military life. OMK provides up to $300 grants for kids to participate in the fun, engaging activities they love. Whether it’s dance or music lessons, cooking classes or gymnastics, it’s the “extras” they want to provide to this unique population.
Kara Dollman, executive director of Our Military Kids, believes giving children the opportunity to do something they choose is so important.
“We want the kids to have a positive experience while their parent is away overseas, or participate in something positive together if their parent has been severely injured. It’s important they choose the activity. It makes a positive impact on the entire family.”
During the pandemic, OMK has had to shift into creative mode to help children find their passion during closures. From funding online cooking classes to socially distanced gymnastics, kids have found a way to stay engaged with grants. Through the pandemic, OMK has given away 2,500 grants totaling $733,000. They dropped the age limit and allowed previous grant recipients to apply a second time to help bring a distraction from the pandemic and deployment.
For nearly two decades, OMK has impacted the lives of Guard and Reserve families
and the children of the severely injured in the best possible way. One of the most famous grant recipients was gymnast Gabby Douglas, Olympic gold medalist. Her father deployed several times as a Guardsman and she applied for two grants over each deployment. Her grants were for gymnastic camps and classes—and the grants paid off.
Kids don’t have to be destined for the Olympics to receive a grant. OMK has given away $28 million to 71,000 military kids since 2004 to participate in a myriad of activities they love.
One Army National Guard family in Utah was especially grateful for the grant during the pandemic as it allowed her son to take a socially-distanced ninja class with other kids.
“Leon is just three, but was having a hard time with dad being gone and being stuck in our small yard with no friends to play with,” says mom Mariah. “Leading up to the deployment, my job hours were cut back due to COVID-19 and the extra income we used to have was no longer there, so we had to cut out activities. Thanks to OMK, he is now in a class with three other boys his age…He looks forward to going every week and then when we get to talk to daddy, he shows him what he learned and talks about it all the time.”
Stephanie Irizarry, Age 17, lives in Texas. She used her OMK grant to continue to play volleyball. She is the daughter of a severely injured Army soldier. Stephanie has used her OMK grants throughout high school to play volleyball. She is now set to play at the collegiate level.
John Lambert, age 10 and living in Evergreen Park, Ill., another child of a deployed Army National Guard member, used his grant money to bring music to a quiet house during the pandemic and pay for fees associated with playing baseball.
For more information about Our Military Kids, visit OurMilitaryKids.org.