My friends often say I have a cool gig. I travel across the country and plan outdoor military family programs for the National Military Family Association. The weekend long retreats include camp activities such as boating and archery, as well as communication workshops for the whole family.
I’m often fine-tuning schedules, coordinating with retreat staff and asking myself questions like “Do we have a gluten-free option at breakfast for that one family member who needs it?” There are a lot of moving parts and it is challenging for me to make sincere connections with all the 15 – 20 families that are in attendance.
Recently, I was asked to attend Operation Purple Healing Adventures in Georgia as a secondary staff member. This retreat is for families of injured, wounded, or ill service members, and was a welcome change for me. My main priority was just to connect with families and take photos without stressing about the schedule or program implementation. I was like the space tourist they send to the International Space Station – just don’t break anything.
What resonated with me the most from the weekend was the morning Yoga session. The Yoga instructor started off the class by saying, “I’m a very competitive person…when I started Yoga it was very difficult for me to understand that Yoga was not a competition against others. In Yoga, we are striving for self-growth day by day.” For someone that has never attended a Yoga class, this statement resonated with me throughout the weekend.
It made me reflect on my Teach For America experience in Baltimore City, Maryland. I was placed as a Special Educator and taught students with various learning disabilities. There were many school days throughout my two-year commitment where I felt discouraged that my students weren’t making the necessary academic progress. Quite frankly, I felt that I was failing them daily because I was a first-year teacher and didn’t have all the experience necessary with meeting the diverse academic needs of all my students.
It wasn’t until the spring of my first year of teaching that I realized I had to stop comparing myself to other model teachers. Clearly, I wasn’t going to be Ms. Frizzle from the Magic School Bus (who remembers her?). My mentality was to strive to be a better teacher than I was yesterday. Of course, I was concerned about my student’s progress in reading and math, but above all, I wanted my students to internalize that they were not defined by their disability. This thought made me think of one family at our retreat.
During the retreat, we had one medically retired father, who survived an IED explosion in Afghanistan, tell a volunteer that he “didn’t want his injury to define who he was to his daughter.” That weekend was an opportunity for him to show that he was more than his injury. He canoed with his daughter, and participated in outdoor activities with other military families that have similar, yet unique, challenges associated with their service-connected injury.
Based on Operation Purple Program application essays that I read, and my conversations with families, that’s what families who want to attend a retreat are looking for: an opportunity to unplug from the daily stressors of life that all “normal” families encounter, and connect with one another in a unique outdoor setting. It’s difficult to be the parent you always want to be when you’re juggling work life with kids’ school schedules and various other commitments.
It’s even more difficult when you factor in additional stressors associated with a service member’s injury (VA appointments, caregiver responsibilities, the loss of income and more). This recent retreat in the woods of Georgia, away from technology, provided families of the injured, wounded, and ill, the opportunity to set an intentional time to focus on one another and to strive to be better caregivers, fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers they always wanted to be.
For me personally, seeing families thrive at this retreat is a humble reminder that I can always be improving as a person. There’s small steps I can make to better implement outdoor programs for military families, or even just beat my previous half-marathon time. So, I agree with my friends, I have a cool gig, not only because the growth I witness from many families during a weekend, but the opportunity for me to reflect and grow as well.
Check out our Operation Purple Programs and see if there’s one near you! We’d love to meet you!