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Editor’s note: Staff Sgt. Katie Theusch is a Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldier who offered her personal perspective on her children and their attendance at the Wisconsin National Guard’s annual Badger Youth Camp. The camp was held virtually for the first time this year due to concerns over COVID-19. Theusch enlisted in November 2006. She deployed to Iraq in 2016 with the 101st Airborne Division Multi-Component Unit, and is currently a member of the 112th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.

Gabriella journals about her experiences during Virtual Badger Youth Camp on Aug. 4. Wisconsin National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Katie Theusch

Back in February, my now 10-year-old daughter would ask me at least once a week if registration was open for this year’s Badger Youth Camp. When I was at work she would send me emails asking if I had signed her up yet. The same question awaited me when I would arrive home.

I registered my 13-year-old son, Dylan, and my daughter Gabriella for camp March 1. They have both attended since they turned 8, and were excited for July when they would get a weekend away from home, bonding with other military kids from across the Wisconsin National Guard.

Then COVID-19 hit.

We received the email that Badger Youth Camp was officially canceled on May 26. And that could have been the end of it.

“We couldn’t responsibly say that we could keep the kids safe and healthy,” said Debora Sohns, the Badger Youth Camp Director. The decision was not taken lightly.

Around that same time, Wisconsin National Guard Child and Youth Program contractors brought up the idea of doing something for the children online, which led to the development of the first-ever Virtual Badger Youth Camp.

Virtual Badger Youth Camp took place Aug. 4-6. More than 40 children between the ages of 6 and 17 came together online and participated in activities focused on well-being, resilience, and creativity.

Gabriella watches as JD Engelhardt, the lead Wisconsin National Guard Child and Youth Program coordinator, addresses children during Virtual Badger Youth Camp on Aug. 4. Wisconsin National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Katie Theusch

I was fortunate to be able to participate with my daughter last week Tuesday. Each child talked about their favorite activity from over the summer as an icebreaker. Each answer was filled with positivity and optimism as they reminisced, or shared about something they were looking forward to.

JD Engelhardt, the lead Wisconsin National Guard Child and Youth Program coordinator, followed introductions with a discussion, showing how a common object can have powerful meaning for an individual which it wouldn’t have for others who didn’t know the story behind it. For him, it’s a football that has traveled the world with him and helped forge connections.

Gabi and I also participated in a full yoga class (I’m not as agile as I once was), and a class on resiliency. My daughter was shocked when the presenter threw an egg at his counter, smashing it. She wrote about how it made such a huge mess in her journal.

Gabriella works on a charcoal drawing of the American flag during Virtual Badger Youth Camp on Aug. 5. Submitted photo

The next two days I went into work, but Gabi got to make a charcoal drawing of an American flag, learn about orienteering, participate in a virtual nature walk, and learn how to cast wildlife tracks in plaster.

I had the chance to talk to Debora Sohns about this year’s youth camp before it took place. She told me about the hard work that took place behind the scenes to prepare for camp. The presenters held multiple rehearsals. Boxes were compiled and mailed out to all attendees so they would have everything they needed.

JD Engelhardt, the lead Wisconsin National Guard Child and Youth Program coordinator, and Lisa Kluetz, the Wisconsin National Guard Family Programs director, prepare to mail boxes of supplies to children registered for Virtual Badger Youth Camp on July 20. Submitted photo

She told me that she believes many children look forward to youth camp, and canceling it created a void for those children. I know my kids were bummed when I told them it would be cancelled, but there was excitement when the virtual option was announced in June.

“We wanted to find a way to get the kids involved, teach them something meaningful,” Sohns said.

Gabriella learns and tries a yoga pose during Virtual Badger Youth Camp on Aug. 4. Wisconsin National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Katie Theusch

She also said that lessons learned through this experience will help to shape future Child and Youth Program activities that are in the works for the fall.

“We’re going to do a follow-up survey just to find out what the overall response was,” Sohns said.

She added that this could change how the program thinks about Badger Youth Camp in the future. While it was a very different experience from in-person camps, in many ways it was also very similar.

My first glimpse of the Wisconsin National Guard’s Badger Youth Camp was six years ago. I supported the event alongside Soldiers with the 112th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, taking photos during camp. My son was 6 and my daughter was 4 years old at the time, and I knew they would have a blast when they were old enough to attend.

The 112th MPAD covers the 2014 WING Youth Camp 2014 at Volk Field and Fort McCoy. 112th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment photo

Over the past couple of years, both of my children have come home with stories about friends they made and the activities their age group completed. I often heard tales of staying up late at night with their bunkmates, practicing military drill and ceremony, ice cream socials, and tug-of-war competitions. The kids attending overcame challenges, built resilience, grew stronger, and bonded – together.

Even though youth camp was virtual this year, I got to watch my daughter interact with other children whose parents serve in the military. I saw the excitement when my child, or other children, had something to contribute to the conversation. Along with the video chat, there was an entire conversation happening among the kids through a text chat (mostly about dogs and shared experiences from what I saw). Everyone respected everyone else, and these are the things I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to witness if youth camp had still been in-person this year.

So thank you to the Child and Youth Program and everyone who contributed to this year’s Virtual Badger Youth Camp. This unique experience has become a cherished memory in my home, and has upheld a tradition we will continue to look forward to.