By Betsy Fradd, WSU Extension
Thursday, June 30, 2011
PULLMAN, Wash. - Seven-year-old Andrew wasn’t sure how long his step-dad, Ben, was going to be gone. He just knew he was leaving and Andrew would miss him. Andrews’s mom, Tara, received an Operation Give a Hug doll as Ben was leaving for deployment and immediately put a picture of her husband on the doll's face.
“We gave the doll to Andrew as we were saying goodbye,” said Tara of Washington state. “He gives the doll a hug at bedtime and sleeps with it every night. On the evenings when Andrew is especially missing him, I spray some of Ben’s cologne on the doll. It helps comfort him and helps him feel like Ben is close.”
Operation Give a Hug doll founder and military spouse Susan Agustin had been given a similar doll for her then 3-year-old daughter. After picking up her toddler from preschool on the base at Fort Lewis, Wash., Agustin was corralled by teachers who said hundreds of kids could benefit from the dolls. Eight years and more than 355,000 dolls later, the demand for the soft, 12-inch unisex doll remains strong.
“As parents, we all feel the need to do everything in our power to try and help our kids,” said Agustin, who created the nonprofit to benefit military children. “Deployment is often hard for us as adults to fully comprehend, and there is no way to explain it to a child. Operation Give a Hug wants to comfort these youth who face extraordinary ongoing challenges and miss a loved one.”
The dolls are now in every state, Europe and Asia. They are distributed to families in the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. Early donations by Kiwanis Club of Greater Tacoma (Wash.) provided funding.
The Army recognized the value of the dolls and, since 2008, has been supplying them to soldiers in the Army, Army Reserve and National Guard through Operation Military Kids. Logistics for the program are coordinated through Washington State University Extension 4-H.
“The Operation Give a Hug dolls are a great way for younger kids to stay connected to their deployed parent,” said Kevin Wright, WSU Extension 4-H military liaison. “Once we started distributing them to deploying soldiers, we couldn’t keep the dolls in stock. It seems like such a simple thing, but the Army’s investment in this program pays incredible dividends to military children and their families.”
The dolls also are given to military family readiness groups, family liaison officers, family programs coordinators and casualty assistance officers. They are used by pediatric psychologists and school counselors to help children cope with deployment.
“There are incredible programs and personnel who continue to care for our families and children during the entire deployment cycle and connect families to support in their communities,” said Agustin. "Many parents come to events where they know the dolls will be given to children. This creates the perfect opportunity for them to learn about additional resources, meet others facing the same challenges and get dolls for their kids to help in such a challenging time in their lives.”