Taryn Yargeau is 16, but she has stress and responsibilities of someone double her age.
The Elma teen’s father is in the Navy, and since she was in second grade he has served in Afghanistan twice. During those months, Taryn took on many of the responsibilities for taking care of her younger sisters, Emily and Kyra.
“I cooked, I cleaned, I took care of Emily and Kyra, I got them ready in the morning,” said Taryn, whose father served for nine months at a time. “(My mom) was home, she worked nights for a while during his first deployment, so she would sleep during the day. We didn’t really see her much.”
This week, Taryn got to act her age.
She attended Operation Purple, a free weeklong summer program for 7- to 17-year-olds around the country who have parents on active military duty. This summer, it was held at Pioneer Camp & Retreat Center in Angola and hosted 125 youngsters.
During the day, the campers participated in military-like activities. They went through ropes courses, watched a helicopter land, toured Coast Guard ships and explored the woods. But they also had carefree fun, like playing basketball, swimming and sitting by the camp- fire and watching the stars. At night, campers opened up to their counselors and peers, and discussed their family situations.
Many of the youngsters left camp Friday feeling like they could better handle deployment stresses. That’s largely because of the friends they made, who understand them more than anyone.
“The people here understand, and they’ll listen to me more,” Taryn said. “The kids at school complain that their life might be that hard because their mom grounds them or something like that, or their parents are divorced so they only get to see their dads on the weekends. But, like, mine was gone for nine months in a row, and my mom was not really around.”
That has brought Taryn back for the past four years. This summer was also 15-year-old Arthur Grennell’s fourth year at camp. His stepfather is in the Army and returned from a seven-month deployment in Afghanistan two days ago.
“It’s actually really hard. When my dad gets deployed, my mom gets wicked stressed out because she has to deal with me and my three brothers, and she has to do that all by herself,” said Arthur, of Sandy Creek. “I think about him losing his life and how terrible that would be for me because he’s really the only guy that’s been there for me. Even though I call him my stepdad, he’s my dad.”
Arthur said his friends at school don’t have parents in the military.
“Some of my friends try to pretend (they understand), but they really don’t know,” he said.
This week, Will Clayton became Arhtur’s best friend at camp. Friday, they stood together, bags packed, next to the camp basketball court. They reminisced on the fun they had this week – playing basketball, swimming and tackling each other in the mud during a rugby game.
Though Will’s mother, who is in the Air Force, hasn’t been deployed since he was born, he was still able to get through to Arthur in ways Arthur’s school friends can’t.
“I tried to relate and tell him how I’ve dealt with it,” Will said.
Arthur said Will’s advice – to “try not to think of it and try to have fun” – actually worked.
Brian Sreniawski, a camp counselor, said that’s part of the goal of Operation Purple – to allow the kids to act like kids.
“This is probably the one week out of the year where they’re not the kid who doesn’t have a dad at home or doesn’t have a mom; they’re just a kid this week,” Sreniawksi said. “We don’t focus on ‘Your mom’s away, your dad’s away.’ We focus on, ‘How are you doing?’ ”
“But we also give them a chance to just be a kid – play knockout till 10:30 at night, play games, sit at a campfire, talk to girls,” he added. “They don’t have to worry about, ‘Am I going to have to take care of my younger sibling? Am I going to have to make sure dinner’s ready? Do I have to do laundry this week?’ ”
Each year, various campsites nationwide host Operation Purple and choose campers based on how recent their parent’s deployment was. The National Military Family Association provides a partial grant for Western New York’s Operation Purple, and the rest of the camp is funded by WNY Heroes, HSBC Bank and local churches and organizations.