More than 100 youngsters are wrapping up a week's getaway at a summer camp in Angola, along the Lake Erie shoreline. It's a summer camp hosted specifically for children of military personnel who have been deployed, are currently deployed or soon will be. It's known as Operation Purple Camp.
Operation Purple Camp was founded in 2004 and administered by the National Military Family Association. Camps are held in several states. The Western New York version is hosted by Pioneer Camp and Retreat Center, where Reverend Alex Knowles has been executive director since 2011.
He described Operation Purple Camp as a place where, for one week, children of military can be with similar children in a camp of their own. For many, it's a temporary escape from the emotions of missing a parent who is away on active duty for an extended period of time.
Often times, Knowles noted, children take on the father or mother figure when their parent is away on duty.
"We want kids to just be kids for this week, without the anxieties and pressures of deployment, of the home life of being a single parent," he said. "They come here and they're just kids. They play games. They goof around. They do a goofy variety show, silly stuff, sing songs all day long."
They also play various games, climb a rock wall and enjoy the beach. Jude Hutcheson, who was attending his fourth Operation Purple Camp this year, recalled past experiences including construction and launching of model rockets.
He told WBFO it's easier for him to relate to other children of military than with peers whose parents are not enlisted.
"You can just walk up to somebody and say hey, what military branch is your family member in? My dad's in the Army, so if I go up to somebody who says 'my mom's in the Army,' I can relate," he said.
Knowles says children with a parent in the National Guard may be less exposed to other military families than children of full-time soldiers, sailors and airmen.
"In their school and in their community, they're going through some experiences that are very challening for them, very lonely for them," he said. "This gives them the opportunity to know other military kids, to see they're not alone. There's a big community for them."
Often times, he added, some children discover neighbors and classmates are sharing that common experience.
About half of the estimated 160 campers who participated this summer have parents who were wounded or injured in the line of duty, Knowles told WBFO. That, too, creates a need for children to bond with peers in similar situations. There is also a Gold Star program for children who have lost a parent.
Two more Operation Purple Camps will be held elsewhere in the nation in the month of August. Demand for the Western New York version is high and already some may be looking ahead to 2019.
"They make friends for a lifetime. They really do here," Knowles said.