SALEM, Ore. – More than 100 children from military families throughout Oregon have begun converging on the Oregon 4-H Center in Salem this week to take part in "Operation Purple" – a special summer camp for kids separated from parents serving in United States military units deployed overseas.

Some 350 Oregon National Guard unit members are preparing to go to the Middle East. In the past few years Oregon has sent many of its National Guard units to help fight terrorism.

"Young children especially can have a difficult time coping with separation from a parent over a period of a year or more, which is the situation kids in military families face when parents are sent overseas," said Joan Engeldinger, Oregon State University 4-H Youth Development educator.

"Operation Purple camp was created to help these children by providing a summer camp experience that includes fun activities and opportunities for kids to make new friends and share with others," she added.

Operation Purple camp, now in its second year in Oregon, is a national program sponsored by the National Military Families Association (NMFA). The program was established for children of parents serving in the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Army Reserve, Coast Guard and National Guard.

The camp is offered at no charge to children ages 8–11. Priority is given to children who have a parent serving in Iraq or Afghanistan or deployed there in the last two years. NMFA partners with the Oregon 4-H Youth Development program to put on the camp, which began Sunday, July 8, for 8- and 9-year-olds and will continue through July 14. The one-week session for youths ages 10-11 begins July 15.

"Working with NMFA on this project is a good fit because the goals of 4-H youth development are parallel with the goals of the camp – to help young people grow by providing educational experiences in a fun and relaxed environment with the help of adult mentors who act as facilitators and role models for the kids," Engeldinger explained.

"In many respects, this will be a fairly traditional 4-H summer fun camp," Engeldinger said. "It will offer a wide range of outdoor activities such as hiking, canoeing and swimming, and education programs where children can learn about wildlife and nature through games and projects."

According to the Engeldinger, Oregon's Operation Purple camp staff members include a mix of veteran 4-H volunteers and others who want to respond to the sacrifice of our military families.

Elizabeth Larson, the reigning Rose Festival Queen, is one of those volunteers, and like her peers, was drawn to the program because of the opportunity to give something back to the country's military families.

"I have a brother in the Marine Corps Reserves and I have so much respect for the families who are experiencing what we see on the news every day in Iraq and other places," said Larson. "Volunteering at the camp is especially important to me because it is something that I can do that will hopefully give these kids a great summer memory."

During the 14-day camp, Larson will work with 8-9 year-olds in the first week and 10-11 year-olds in the second week. She will be a "field instructor," working with four high school-age counselors to teach camp participants about animals and the environment.

A Lincoln High School (Portland) graduate, Larson intends to enter OSU this fall and major in early childhood education and international studies.

"Elizabeth Larson is one our more notable volunteer counselors due to her status as Rose Festival Queen, but her attitude toward helping these children is very typical among all our volunteers," said Engeldinger. "We all want to make this camp a great time that will give these kids a big lift."

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Joan Engeldinger,