Southeast Missouri State University student Jenna Kirkbride is spending her summer bringing educational, interactive and fun activities to military families across the nation with Project Youth Extension Service! (YES).
Project YES! is a national service program that hosts military family events throughout the country and delivers specialized youth development programs to children and youth of deployed family members. Interns put together educational and fun-filled activities that meet the needs of military families impacted by deployments and other military-related absences.
As a staff intern, Kirkbride of Florissant, Missouri, a senior majoring in family studies with an emphasis on child development, will serve for a full year, planning and conducting one or two events a month until next May. The one- or two-day events take place on or near military installations or bases across the United States and are for youth ages 6-18.
“I really wanted to have hands-on experience with working alongside military youth and their families,” she said.
To prepare to be successful, Kirkbride attended a one-week orientation with the program’s professional staff in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she received high-level training in leadership development, facilitation skills and youth development and curriculum.
“I learned about what to do at the events, the types of activities we can facilitate and how to help the kids relate these activities and skills to handling family members’ deployment,” Kirkbride said. “We also learned how to manage a classroom, the types of roles we could have for each event, as well as information about the military, such as ranks.”
In planning each event, Kirkbride is assigned a specific role from either researching the event area, planning the event’s media coverage, preparing travel documents and details, or arranging supplies needed for the event.
“We are constantly working on something for future events,” Kirkbride said. “We are given a specific role, and we also set professional and personal goals we would like to work on for each event.”
She and her fellow interns follow their planned curriculum and facilitate different activities and games for children, Kirkbride said.
“We start out by giving expectations for our event, and we typically have the kids come up with things they would like to see or do,” she said. “We then start out with some ice breakers and name games.”
The activities vary for each age group and are meant to combine fun and learning, such as “Balloon Towers,” where the children strategize on building the largest free-standing balloon tower only using balloons and tape, or “Express This,” where the children play a modified game of charades, acting or drawing a situation that made them feel angry, frustrated or worried, and then talk about possible solutions.
“I love seeing the different creative ideas the children come up with in the activities and sometimes I think, ‘Wow! How did they come up with that idea?’” Kirkbride said. “At my last event while doing the free-standing balloon tower, a group of girls decided to use the idea of static and asked if this was against the rules. For a second, I was speechless, but I allowed it because technically they were not using the tape to stick the balloons together against a wall.”
Every activity and discussion is meant to follow the Project YES! process of Describe, Examine and Articulate Learning (DEAL). DEAL helps the interns and children engage in activities, reflect on their experiences and use what they learned in the future.
“We try to take each skill that was used within the activities for the kids to relate it back to deployment and the different aspects of being at home with a member of the household out on the job,” she said. “The coolest part about this is the kids will bring up an answer and spark interest of another individual, and they tend to lead their own discussions. As an intern, I’m there for support, and then I ask another question to keep the process going.”
Helping the children connect with one another and express their feelings is a highlight of each event, she said. Often children keep their feelings and thoughts to themselves because they don’t know someone who’s going through the same situation and are worried others might not understand.
“I love seeing their faces light up when they are able to talk to each other and have a safe place to talk about anything they might need to express” that has been kept inside for so long, Kirkbride said. “With all the children, they had smiles on their faces while in the room, but when we had our discussions, the children expressed a lot of grief and sadness that they might have been keeping in. Here they have people to share that with.”
In between events, Kirkbride is working with her fellow interns and program directors to organize and prepare for the next event. She also receives ongoing leadership and curriculum education and training to continue to expand her knowledge and skills.
As a full-year staff intern, she also has a dedicated mentor who will assist her in the exploration and development of her career goals and in the completion of a career-broadening learning project.
“What I like best about having a mentor is that I know I am not alone with my project, and we can bounce ideas off of each other if I feel stuck,” Kirkbride said. “It gives me the opportunity to have another person work with me and have me keep improving it, by having another set of eyes that might pick up on something I missed when looking it over.”
Thus far, Kirkbride has conducted one event in Champions Gate, Florida. Her next event this month will be in Chicago, Illinois, followed by two more events in August before her final semester begins at Southeast. She will continue to work with Project YES! on select weekends throughout the upcoming academic year.
She hopes to gain more work experience and take what she’s learned with Project YES! to make a positive impact on the lives she hopes to impact after graduation.
“I hope to gain more confidence in working with military families,” she said. “I’m learning to recognize that just because someone seems like they are okay, you should not assume what you are seeing is the whole picture. I can see a child showing behaviors and that you may think at first they are doing it for attention, but you find out it is from them not knowing how to handle these emotions about a parent leaving the household for deployment, and their lives are changing and the possibility that it could be permanent.”
Watching the children express their feelings and connect with one another over a two-day event is the most fulfilling part of her job.
“I loved how in the beginning nobody really knew each other, but by the second day or even by the end of the first day everyone was so connected with one another,” she said. “It makes you think about how even though we think we are going through things alone, there is at least another person who is going through a similar situation.”