The Military Families Learning Network (MFLN) Family Transitions team acknowledges that COVID has created many challenges for Military Family Service Providers this past year as they have attempted to continue to provide services with military Service members and their families. Service providers have had to be extremely creative and flexible in delivering programs that meet the needs of military families, including youth, amidst social distancing and other challenging restrictions.
The MFLN Family Transitions team had an opportunity to visit recently with Laura Groeneweg who is the Child & Youth Services Lead with the Minnesota Army National Guard (ARNG) Child and Youth programs. This interview highlights how the Child & Youth staff have not missed a beat in providing robust programming for military youth across the state in new and different ways.
MFLN Family Transitions (MFLN FT): Please introduce yourself and share what your role is with the MN National Guard.
Laura Groeneweg (LG): I have been with the MN National Guard Child and Youth Program since 2010. My colleague, Mel Johnson, has been with the Child and Youth Program since 2017. Together we are the MN National Guard Child and Youth Team. We track military trends, raise awareness for military families, and provide resources and develop activities to help foster resilience in military youth and families.
The mission of the Minnesota Army National Guard Child and Youth Program is to positively impact Soldier and family readiness, resilience and retention by providing secure, timely, flexible and high-quality youth development opportunities and resources which promote the overall well-being of Army National Guard children and youth.
MFLN Family Transitions (MFLN FT): Describe how COVID-19 has impacted the youth you work with.
Laura Groeneweg (LG): MN National Guard Service Members continue to deploy despite a global pandemic. An important part of the deployment cycle is the opportunity for Service members and their families to attend Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Events to learn about resources they are eligible for before, during and after deployments. However, these events have gone virtual as a result of COVID. While it is still beneficial for families to get the information virtually, the kids have not been able to connect with other kids like they did previously when the events were in person. The ability for kids to connect with other military youth was a crucial piece of the Yellow Ribbon Events for youth. The youth sessions provided an opportunity for the kids to participate in age-appropriate activities and connect with other kids who were going through the same thing. One major outcome of the youth sessions was that the youth realized they weren’t alone.
Mel and I used to attend these events in person to provide books, resources and deployment kits for youth to help prepare them for the deployment. Because of COVID, youth have been impacted because they are not able to make those connections at the Yellow Ribbon Events. We have found that it is difficult to get the youth resources out to families due to coordination, cost, etc. Currently, teens have the option to attend the Yellow Ribbon Event classes with their Soldier, but now the solider may be away from home when they tune into the event, making it more difficult for the teens to participate.
MFLN Family Transitions (MFLN FT): How have you had to change your program delivery with military youth as a result of COVID?
Laura Groeneweg (LG): As a result of COVID, Mel and I have had to be more creative with how we connect with our military families. We have more of an
on-line presence as well and a very large distribution list to reach our families. We are aware that some families may be feeling overwhelmed while others are searching for resources. As a result, we post more parenting resources, provide links for at-home learning, activities, boredom busters, and helpful podcast links on our social media site and website MN National Guard Youth Programs Facebook page.
Each year, we work with the MN Military Teen Panel which consists of 13 military-connected teens. They meet quarterly with us for an entire weekend.
During the meetings, we work together to plan the MN Military Teen Summit which is held each summer. The teens brainstorm the theme, workshops, speakers, activities and community service project. We had to cancel the in-person MN Military Teen Summit last June, which is typically held at a retreat style camp or hotel. We didn’t want to cancel the event all together since the Teen Panel had
worked so hard all year to plan the event. So, the Teen Summit was held virtually using Zoom and Zoom breakout rooms. The participants were sent a welcome letter and all the items they would have received at the event, including a t-shirt and tie-dye materials, book, teen resilience handouts, canvas to complete the collage activity, and M&M’s for the get-to-know-you ice breaker. The Teen Summit was condensed into a two hour Zoom event that lasted an unprecedented three hours! There were 40 teens on the Zoom call. It exceeded our expectations for the teen participation and interaction. It was our first on-line teen event and we were skeptical as to how it would work out, but we were very satisfied with the outcome and participation from the teens. Members of the Teen Panel led the workshop, icebreaker activities, and breakout zoom discussions. The participants completed their tie-dye shirts and collage activity prior to the event so they could wear the shirts to the Zoom event and display their artwork.
As we made plans to provide additional services to our military youth we struggled with identifying the best delivery method. As a parent of young children and Youth Development Professional, I had conflicting feelings about adding another screen-time activity for the military youth. I had read all the research about limiting screen time each day and increasing low-tech activities to boost creativity, self-esteem, teamwork and interpersonal skills. Mel and I didn’t want to just add more screen time for kids and parents. Therefore, our alternative approach to reach our military families was through At-Home Activity Kits. These kits include a book, snack, and art or STEM
activity. We created a sign-up for families to register for the kits and we had to close the registration because families were so eager to receive an activity kit. We mailed 700 kits to MN National Guard youth. This was a great response and indicator that families were interested in additional enrichment activities and resources while socially distancing at home due to COVID. We had to cancel some in-person events, which made it possible to fund the kits to send home. Families who received the kits were very appreciative.
MFLN Family Transitions (MFLN FT): What is Month of the Military Child and how will military families be able to participate this year?
Laura Groeneweg (LG): April is Month of the Military Child (MOMC) nationwide. This is a great opportunity to recognize the military-connected youth in our state. Each year, we offer several virtual initiatives to include a photo contest, art contest and the opportunity for parents to request personalized letters to their military child from the MN Governor. We haven’t had to change this programming model due to COVID. We have been doing these initiatives for several years to maximize the reach across the state. This year, Child & Youth Services (CYS) plans to provide a MOMC Family At-Home Celebration Activity Box which will include MOMC SWAG: a family game, movie (from USO), and movie snacks since we can’t celebrate in person. Families can celebrate together at home.
MFLN Family Transitions (MFLN FT): What changes have you had to make in how you build relationships with the youth and families you work with as a result of COVID?
Laura Groeneweg (LG): Typically, we would have had 1-2 Child & Youth Program events per month to include Yellow Ribbon Reintegration events, youth and teen events and family overnight events. Families grew to anticipate and appreciate the unique programming we offered. Unfortunately, our in-person events were no longer an option because our partnership locations were closed or running at limited capacity due to COVID social distancing restrictions. As a result, we have had to restructure our programming. While in-person events are our preference in the youth development world, sending items virtually and At-Home Activity Kits via mail have been very successful for us. We are reaching more kids than we would have reached at in-person events due to location, cost, time constraints, conflict of family events, military schedules, etc.
Mel and I wanted to continue to interact with our military families and youth during the pandemic. The Army National Guard Child and Youth team from across the U.S. developed At-Home Activity Packets for youth to do on their own and with their families. The activity packets are emailed to families, making it very cost effective and easy to get to families. Anyone who wants a packet is able to receive one. They just have to register for the packets and it will be emailed to them monthly. The sign-up can be found on our MN National Guard Youth Programs Facebook page. The activity packets have been very popular with families. Each packet contains several theme related low-tech activities that relate to the month. There are resilience skills, baking or cooking ideas, and STEAM (STEM + Art) activities. We hope to be able to get back to in person events soon when COVID social distancing restrictions are lifted, but we also plan to continue to send activity kits to military youth once or twice a year.
Overall, our biggest challenge has been figuring out how to create a community of support with military families, youth and teens when we are not able to gather in-person. However, we have found some success in keeping in touch with our National Guard families and youth by increasing our on-line presence and proving more virtual opportunities. Post COVID, we hope to be able to resume in-person events while maintaining some of the virtual offerings in the future.
Military Family Service Providers are invited to follow us on Facebook
@MNNationalGuardYouthPrograms to learn more about our programming including updates on activities, At-Home Activity Packets, Month of the Military Child opportunities, summer programming and more!
MFLN Family Transitions (MFLN FT): We encourage readers to share how they have adapted programming to continue meeting the needs of military families and youth despite COVID.
Laura Groeneweg, Lead Child and Youth Program Coordinator, has worked with military families and youth for 20 years. She has been the MN Army National Guard Lead Child and Youth Program Coordinator (LCYPC) for nine years, Army Reserves Region Coordinator for two years, and a camp counselor, director and project coordinator on active duty bases for eight years. As LCYPC, Laura tracks military trends, raises awareness for military families, and provides resources to youth and educators to help foster resilience in military youth and families. She earned my M.A. in Leisure, Youth and Human Services and B.A. in Social work from the University of Northern Iowa.