School counselor Heather Quill handed a "stress ball" to each of the seven children seated around a table -- the small, foam-rubber orbs are suitable for squeezing, 8-year-old Ashlee Watts noted, when feeling a little sad.
Then it was time for "thumbs up, thumbs down" news, and Brigid Giles had both: "My dad's been gone for seven months, and he's not coming back for a few more months," said Brigid, 8. "But the thumbs up part is that he's going to Iraq in a few days and he's going to stay in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces."
Natasha Kijek, 8, angled her right thumb up, too, saying her father, who left for the Mideast in March, had met Brigid's dad at their U.S. military camp in Kuwait. Both girls were delighted.
The five third-graders and two fifth-graders attending the session at Whittier Elementary School in Frederick are among about 200 students there -- more than one-fourth of the student body -- with at least one active-duty military parent. About two dozen of those parents are deployed in and around Iraq, with others in neighboring Persian Gulf countries and many more on 24-hour alert to ship out from the Army's Fort Detrick in Frederick.
Though the Pentagon has declared the heavy fighting over in Iraq, the conflict is still very much alive for these children who worry about parents in a foreign land. When a visitor last week asked Quill whether the children were feeling better about the safety of their deployed parents, she shook her head and said: "They are still gone. They are still going to be gone."
Quill and her colleagues have made it their mission to help the kids through their tough times, with counseling, group support sessions, student buddies, after-school outings and what Quill calls "a heroes program" to emphasize the value in what their parents do -- and what they, the kids, do back home.
"Everything we do spirals off the need," said Quill, the mother of two boys and the daughter of an ex-Marine. "I call it rolling uphill. We have a basic framework of support, and we constantly get new ideas."
Whittier is one of more than a dozen schools in the greater Washington region with significant percentages of military families. Many of the schools are located on bases, such as Fort Meade High School, part of a community designed to meet the distinct needs of military families. Whittier, though close to Fort Detrick, is representative of those schools built to support a neighborhood that over time found itself with growing numbers of military families.
The school, located up a winding road from the base, opened five years ago as the heart of the Whittier development of homes and townhouses, built to educate students by day and become a recreational center at night. Its original mission statement said nothing about helping military families.
But with another nearby base closing and the relatively small Fort Detrick expanding, school administrators realized that a growing proportion of students was coming from new military families, many of whom had moved to the area with little emotional support.
In spring 2000, the school staged the "Month of the Military Child," and asked children to design posters showing where they had lived. A first-grader's poster showing seven cities prompted officials to decide to more directly address the needs of these children.
Their operating mantras, Quill said, became: "How can we make this the best place you have been? How do we make you feel like you are not a lost soul?"
The answers were multifaceted. Reading specialist Judy Stup and other teachers work with students to close academic gaps. Teachers watch for signs that kids are overwhelmed and adjust homework loads to give them some downtime, said Vice Principal Steve Raff. And Quill builds programs to support the students emotionally.
A key theme for Quill is the concept of "heroes," one that became especially important to her after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. At a peer mediation conference, Quill saw a program about helping children feel good about themselves by becoming heroes, and on the anniversary of the attacks, she arranged a program that emphasized not the sadness of the event but good deeds.
The notion stuck. Now the school's front hall is graced with the Wall of Heroes, pictures of children with parents in the military and posters of people the children view as heroes. Children are encouraged to help others; one girl cut off 16 inches of her hair to help make wigs for children with cancer.
The students are collecting pennies and rolling them to be used to purchase calling cards for soldiers, and they are assembling care packets to send overseas -- actions that help them feel they are doing something to help.
Classes also write to parents serving overseas, sometimes composing and sending e-mails during class, and post the communications on the walls. On a recent day, Amy Forsyth, a third-grade teacher, had her 23 students call out questions they want answered by Capt. Todd Kijek, Natasha's father. About 20 minutes later, an e-mail was on its way to Kuwait. A response usually comes in a day, often sooner, Forsyth said.
"A little disruption [from academics] is worth helping the kids out," she said.
"Dear Mr. Kijek, How are you? We are fine," said one class e-mail dated April 14. "It sounds like you are in a pretty decent area compared to what we've seen on T.V." His response came the next day: "I DO FEEL VERY LUCKY to be here at Camp Wolf. I can't wait to get home!!!"
Classes have also adopted nearly 30 other soldiers whom they have never met, writing to them as well. At least one of the soldiers plans to visit the school when he returns home.
Quill holds student group sessions during the school day, in the belief that the children need to talk about their lives as much as they need to do anything else. The children say they like it a lot.
"It helps me remember my dad and all the good that he's doing over there," said fifth-grader Allison Watts, 10. "It helps me not to be sad."
Parents, too, appreciate the school's initiatives.
"I am very proud of my girls and how they are handling my absence, in part, due to your group meetings allowing them to discuss their feelings with other children of deployed parents," Army Capt. Kevin W. Watts wrote in an e-mail to Quill from Kuwait. "I believe it important that our children discuss and understand what is going on to possibly prevent the same actions in the future. . . . War is a terrible thing."
At one group session last week, the kids got to open up two military meal packets, one with pasta Alfredo and the other western beans. Attempts to heat the packets were less than successful, though 9-year-old Thomas Buchanan (whose soldier mother was deployed overseas in the same unit as Watts) and 8-year-old Anthony Foley grabbed the M&Ms, and everyone devoured peanut butter and crackers.
At one point during the support session, a child asked if Quill had put her father's picture on the Wall of Heroes. When Quill responded yes, the children raced out to look. To the side, carefully watching, was the father of three young children. In three days, he would be leaving for a year-long overseas deployment.
"It's hard for him to see that now, while he is here," Quill said of the father. "But it will help him later when he's away."