Mendota High School junior, Joe Wallace, proudly stands beside the new Hero Wall showcase in the main hallway at MHS. The Hero Wall is a place for students of military families to display photos with their service member. (Reporter photo by Jennifer Sommer)
MENDOTA – Mendota High School junior, Joe Wallace, has a mission. He wants teens of military families to have a face, a voice, and an outlet. Wallace seeks to help others like himself who face the struggles of being part of a military family.
Wallace knows first hand what it is like to be in a military family. Both his father and mother are retired from the Navy as well as five brothers who have served or are actively serving in the military. Since 2001, Wallace has gone through six deployments with his family. He remembered the first was his mother’s deployment shortly after 9-11.
Wallace is not alone. Illinois has over 30,000 children, under the age of 18, of service members. This number does not include the siblings and other close relationships, so the number of youth affected by military deployments in Illinois is actually much higher. Every single county in Illinois has military children in it.
The Hero Wall at Mendota High School aims to recognize these relationships and show support to military service members and their families. The showcase in the main hallway at MHS will display photos of students with their service member and put a face to the teens that are part of military families.
With most deployments lasting six months to a year, Wallace said issues these teens face are trouble staying focused with school work, classmates understanding, and coping with their loved ones being gone. “You grow up real quick in a military family,” he said.
Wallace wants others to know that military teens worry about family safety. He noted that when you get a call from your loved one, you do not know where they are or what they are doing. Then you do not hear from them again for a month or so. “You just keep thinking that they could be in danger. It gets in your head,” he said.
Wallace said it would help if teachers, especially, knew when a student had a family member deployed to be more aware of the student’s schoolwork and more sensitive to subject matter discussed in the classrooms.
Wallace has found other teens dealing with the same issues he faces when he became involved in Operation Military Kids, a group that lends support to kids and teens who have military family deployed.
He recalled the first time he attended a meeting in Springfield, “I thought, Wow, all these people can relate to what I have gone through.”
Operation Military Kids is a program for children and teens who have a family member in the military, whether it is a brother, sister, or parent. The organization holds summits to teach teens coping skills.
Operation Military Kids draws awareness that it is not just the military soldiers that are affected; it is their families as well. “I want people to know how it is for the family members. I don’t want their sympathy, just recognition,” said Wallace.
His involvement with the organization has led to him being recently named Reporter for Operation Military Kids in Illinois, Springfield Council. “I would like to spotlight other area teens and let them tell their story,” he added. What Wallace chooses to write about will be published in a quarterly newsletter sent out by the organization.
Operation Military Kids also offers other programs such as Hero Packs, Speak Out for Military Kids, and Regional Youth Activities.
Hero Packs are given to military children with a deployed parent. The packs include items to help the youth stay connected with their loved one and show community support to the family.
Speak Out for Military Kids (SOMK) is an opportunity where all youth (both military and civilian) can learn leadership and public presentation skills to tell others about the experience of military youth and their families. The youth participating in SOMK are motivated and hone their skills in various forms of media to present the message of their design to community organizations, schools, churches, and clubs.
Regional Youth Activities are held throughout the state for military kids where they can come together for fun while they find acceptance, support, and understanding of what they are experiencing during this time that their loved one serves our country.
Wallace also seeks to give other local teens like himself an outlet to discuss what they are going through. So he is starting Proud Brothers and Sisters, a support group for teens by teens. He hopes to have a group of teens that can meet one or twice a month to discuss issues that they are facing.
Wallace plans to follow his family’s footsteps into the military after he graduates from MHS and enlist in the Marines. He also plans to continue to grow his new program, Proud Brothers and Sisters, to a national level. He said, “I am just going to start small and go from there.”
Local teens that want more information on Proud Brothers and Sisters can contact Wallace at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on Operation Military Kids, visit http://www.operationmilitarykids.org/public/statePOCHome.aspx?state=Illinois.