By Ken Olsen
(Copyright 2012, All Rights Reserved)
Melissa Seligman knew she had to help her children find their emotional voices. Her daughter’s depression spiked to near self-destructive levels when her husband deployed. Her son’s anxiety was gut wrenching.
“We have never asked military children to go through repeated, continuous goodbyes,” Seligman says. “We need to give them the freedom and opportunity to say, ‘I hurt.’ We don’t know how to help our kids until they can tell us what they need help with.”
Seligman teamed up with Christina Piper to create A Heart Apart, a book that children customize with their own photos and text to reflect what they are feeling when their father or mother goes to war.
“There’s not a lot out there to tell you what kids are going through,” says Piper, who, like Seligman, is an Army wife and mother of a boy and a girl. “What’s unique about the book is that it gives a child words to talk about what’s happening. And it helped me to talk to them about what they were feeling.”
Children build their own copy of the book in tandem with their parent who is going to deploy. A website guides them through creation and illustration of their story. For example, one page has a child and his parent complete these sentences: “Sometimes I feel (emotion) when (family member or friend) is gone. I also learn new things and enjoy (fun activity) while (he or she) is gone. I know that (family member or friend) is always proud of me and loves me very much.” The child selects a photo to put on the facing page to remind them of something they do that is fun – such as fishing – while their parent is away.
“The process is as important as the product,” Seligman says, “It’s a way for them to tell you how they feel without looking you in the face and feeling intimidated.”
Military children are given vouchers that allow them to access the software to build the books. Civic groups and veterans service organizations have donated funds to cover the cost of most of the books printed to date. Once the book is completed, the publisher prints two copies – one for the child and one for the deploying parent.
“For my daughter, getting her book in the mail and seeing her picture with her dad – the emotions and the conversations that ensued – were amazing,” Piper says. “My son drags his to bed every night.”
Teachers and school administrators near Fort Riley, Kan., where Seligman’s family was stationed when the book was first published in April 2010, praise A Heart Apart.
“It’s all about them and their dad and nobody else,” says Shannon Rolfs, a student support monitor at Spring Valley Elementary School, which received book vouchers for 100 students courtesy of the Junction City, Kan., Breakfast Optimist Club. “It’s a connection that keeps them close.”
Flo Gatsche, who teaches first grade at Eisenhower Elementary School in Junction City, knew she had to get her students copies of the book when she discovered A Heart Apart.
“I wanted a book that explained deployment and the feelings and emotions that went with it,” Gatsche says. “It allows them to put their family member and themselves in a book and yet know that their feelings and emotions and experiences are universal.”
She knows the life of a military child first hand. Her father went to Vietnam with the Army when she was growing up in Kansas.
Gatsche’s students love A Heart Apart as well. “The kids were excited to see a book that dealt with deployment,” she says. “Because it’s not like you can go to the library and get a book about deployment.”
Future production of the book is uncertain and Seligman and Piper search for a new publisher to keep the project going.
“My dream is A Heart Apart would be in the hands of every military child between the ages of 2 and 10,” Seligman says. “The youngest child can feel loss, can feel anger, can feel sadness. It’s our job to help them through it.”
This story appeared as a sidebar to The Hardest Year: Children Endure the Stress of Parent’s Deployment. Read more of Ken Olsen’s stories about the challenges military families face on this website, including America’s Forgotten Military Families, Guard and Reserve Families Serve in Isolation, Family Considers Leaving Military After Enduring Multiple Combat Deployments and other stories from the Behind the Blue Star series.