By Elaine Sanchez, American Forces Press Service
LOS ANGELES, CA – Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, joined a group of educators for a discussion on how schools can better serve and support military families and to learn about a program that’s having a positive impact in military children’s lives.
Sitting alongside teachers, administrators and military family members at the University of Southern California here, Biden, who holds a doctorate in education, noted the importance of community and school support for military families, especially as they weather the multiple challenges of moves, new schools and deployments.
As a military mom, “I know firsthand just how important it is for a child to have the support of a community and school when Mom or Dad is at war,” she said. The Bidens’ son, Beau, a major in the Delaware Army National Guard, deployed to Iraq for a year in 2008, leaving two young children behind.
While he was away, Biden recalled, her granddaughter Natalie’s teacher hung a picture of her father’s unit outside her classroom. “Every day when she walked into her class, she would stop and kiss her dad,” she said. “All of her schoolmates knew her dad was at war.”
In some cases, however, a child’s struggles may go unnoticed by teachers who aren’t aware of the military family members in their midst. Biden recalled a story a general told her while she was in Iraq two years ago. During a concert at his 6-year-old daughter’s school, a child burst into tears during the song “Ave Maria.” A teacher rushed over and asked her what was wrong. “That was the song that they played at my father’s funeral,” she told the teacher. “He died in Iraq.”
“That story is heartbreaking for all of us, especially the educators here who can imagine the impact an incident like that would have on a child,” said Biden, who is a longtime educator herself.
This story spotlights the importance of boosting community and school-based support, she noted.
Biden lauded the educators around her for taking on this challenge through the Building Capacity in Military-connected Schools project, a consortium of eight military-connected school districts in Southern California, the Department of Defense Education Activity and the University of Southern California. The consortium’s intent is to create military-friendly environments in schools, to spread the word about effective programs and resources, and to raise military family awareness among educators, administrators and school counselors.
Biden then invited the attendees to showcase the programs they’ve undertaken as part of the consortium.
Kim Becker, a Marine Corps spouse, mother, and graduate student of military social work at USC, shared her experiences as an intern at Jefferson Middle School in Oceanside, Calif. Hoping to bridge the military-civilian gap and create a sense of pride and honor among military children, she coordinated a ceremony with the Oceanside High School Junior ROTC to honor the Marine Corps birthday.
The goal, Becker noted, was to show that “the military student is an asset to their school. They come there with incredible life experiences and courageous sacrifices.”
Fellow social work intern Gena Truitt, a prior service member and military mom, talked about how she created the Pride Club to foster camaraderie among military kids at Wolf Canyon Elementary School in Chula Vista, Calif. The intent was to “show them how awesome they are … so they can talk about their experiences and build their own networks,” she said.
“This is why I went into social work, so that I can serve this population and we can have a good time and build these social bonds,” she added.
Kayla Felizardo, daughter of Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Anthony Seaman and Monique Felizardo, joined the Pride Club after her family moved from Japan and her father left for an assignment in Greece. Seeking military networks, she was excited to learn about a club that would offer her a chance to meet other military kids.
“It helped me express how I felt about the military,” Kayla said at the roundtable. “I got to meet new friends. I realized I wasn’t the only one at my school who was a military child.
“It made me feel special,” she added.
“You are special,” Biden responded back.
Robin Williamson, Navy wife and school liaison officer, described how she helped to create transition rooms in 11 military-impacted San Diego-area schools. These rooms are dedicated solely to welcoming new military families into the school and community, she explained. Families use the rooms to learn about school and community resources, and to create connections with other military families.
“It’s a great way to have the families come in, and you can just see their anxiety lessen,” she said. “They know where to go if they have any questions.”
Tanya Belsan, principal at Dewey Elementary School in San Diego, calls her transition room Connections Corner. The room offers military families moving to the community a one-stop-shop for resources, she said, noting her school is nearly 90-percent military.
“We deal a lot with transitions for families in and out, and need to help them acclimate quickly so their children can be successful in school,” she said. “They are a wonderful and unique population that need support.”
Biden wrapped up the roundtable by thanking the educators for their work and for rising to the challenge of Joining Forces, the campaign First Lady Michelle Obama and Biden launched last year to raise awareness of troops, veterans and their families and to call on all sectors of society to support them.
“One of the goals of Joining Forces is really to change the culture all across America,” she said. “I think we will have been a success if at some point in time — whether it’s two years from now, 10 years from now — that people just don’t question this anymore because it’s in all the school districts.
“What you’re doing is a perfect example of how we want to change things in America, where every state, every school district has programs like this,” she told attendees. “You’re doing exactly what needs to be done.”
This roundtable discussion marked Biden’s second day of a three-day, whirlwind West Coast trip.
Earlier in the week, she visited the Veterans Affairs’ Palo Alto Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center, where she discussed the continuum of care for wounded warriors with patients, staff and caregivers. Later that day, Biden, alongside U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra and Peter Levin, chief technology officer for the VA, participated in an “Apps for Heroes” event in San Francisco.
Biden’s next stop is Camp Pendleton, where she’ll visit with Marines, sailors and their families today