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School counselor offers comfort with deployed parent pillows

Maxwell Elementary School Counselor, Mary Jo Ryan, shows two members of her "Far and Away Club" a pillow that she's designed to help children remember their deployed parents. At left is first-grader Shailah Lowe and also shown is second-grader Ahrian Davis. (U.S. Air Force photo/Melanie Rodgers Cox)

Maxwell Elementary School Counselor, Mary Jo Ryan, shows two members of her "Far and Away Club" a pillow that she's designed to help children remember their deployed parents. At left is first-grader Shailah Lowe and also shown is second-grader Ahrian Davis. (U.S. Air Force photo/Melanie Rodgers Cox)

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Colorful drawings of smiling hearts and their fathers watching television with them or eating watermelon at a family picnic were drawn Thursday by Maxwell Elementary School children who have a deployed parent. The creative outlet is one of several provided as part of the school's "Far and Away Club."

A pillow with a deployed parent's picture on it is the latest effort in providing support for the children.

For five years, Mary Jo Ryan, the Maxwell Elementary School guidance counselor, has welcomed these students into the biweekly "Far and Away Club," more commonly known as "the deployed group."

The counselor has created soft pillows for the kids with a digital photo of their deployed parent printed on fabric on the front of the pillow - something the children can hold when they miss their parent and want to feel closer.

"Parents have been encouraged to send in a photo of the deployed parent, and I've made the fabric shell out of quilting scraps," said Ms. Ryan. "The children then help stuff the pillows and are able to take them home that day."

Ms. Ryan's classroom is a safe place where the children know they can express their feelings and talk about missing their parent, what the parent is doing while away, and what is happening at home. 

It is strictly a voluntary group, and Ms. Ryan said she makes every effort to keep the group meeting without taking the kids from their academic classes.

"It helps the children just to know they have some place they can go to if they want to talk to a grown-up or to other kids who also have a parent deployed. When I listen to the kids talk in group about their fears then I have an opportunity to help them," she said.

The kindergarten through second grade group have anywhere from five to eight children. The third through sixth grade group currently have five. Ms. Ryan said the numbers vary and have increased since Sept. 11, 2001.

"The activities in the two age groups are a little different. The younger kids have decided that they want to just come to my room to have lunch where it is quieter," she said. "The older kids come in and we talk a little bit about responsibilities, and we've made a couple of craft items like bath salts for the parent who is home with them."

In order to participate in the group, the student must have a parent deployed and not away on temporary duty.  Ms. Ryan said that it does not matter whether the parent is gone for several months, a year, or sometimes longer.

She also said attending the class does not abruptly end once the parent returns home. There is a transition phase the child is escorted through.

Of the pillow, a first grader said she likes to "snuggle up with it and it makes me feel better." She explained that her father is in Afghanistan "to help people."

A second grader talked about what she'll look forward to when her father returns. "He just pinches my arm and we laugh - and then he turns me and throws me up in the air. I miss that and I want to do it again when he comes back."

A third grade boy described his extra responsibilities with his father in Iraq "for special business," and that he puts his special pillow on his bed so his dog doesn't get to it.

All three expressed enthusiasm about having lunches with Ms. Ryan. They said they like eating cookies, listening to stories she reads to them and talking with her and the other kids about how proud they are of their dads.

"One of the biggest things that a deployed parent is concerned about are the different things they miss seeing in their child's life when they are gone," said Ms. Ryan.

"The pillows can bring comfort to the child as well as to the parents as they cope with the changes and stresses of being separated for a time."

Ms. Ryan said the joy she sees on the children's faces helps her know she is in some way helping them. "As long as there is a need for the deployed group, I will be here for them."