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A CHAMPion for Military Families

Student’s Nonprofit Provides Babysitting for Kids, Activities for Parents

By Karen Shih ’09

Book

It was a 5-year-old girl who spurred Jen Fink ’14 to create her nonprofit supporting the youngest members of military families.

The girl, a daughter of a triple amputee, was walking with Fink through her neighborhood for disabled service members when they saw a man who had lost all of his limbs.

“We’re so lucky,” the girl told Fink, who was an intern in the village.

Fink was surprised. “Why?”

“My daddy still has his arm,” the 5-year-old said.

A community health major, Fink decided at that moment three years ago that she wanted to help these kids who dealt with so much at such a young age. She created Operation C.H.A.M.P.S (Child Heroes Attached to Military Personnel), co-writing a children’s book in 2011 and launching a free babysitting program in the fall.

Fink Visiting

“There was nothing out there for military-connected, elementary schoolchildren,” says Fink, who despite having no personal connections to the military, had volunteered for several years at Walter Reed National Military Center and Operation Homefront Villages. “As a college student, I didn’t have a penny to give—but I had time and energy.”

The book, “The Little CHAMPS,” helps celebrate these children while defining military terminology through stories about the challenges they face living with a deployed parent, moving to different bases and more. She co-wrote it with her mom, Debbie, and Navy veteran Walter Blackwell illustrated it, and they’ve distributed it to more than 10,000 children. The United Service Organizations took the book on tour in Japan last April, and plans two more tours with the book later this year.

There are nearly 2 million military-connected children, according to the Military Child Education Coalition. They often don’t feel understood by their teachers or peers, Fink says, so Operation CHAMPS has also created the CHAMP Kit, which contains copies of the book, a DVD of a service member in Afghanistan reading it and a curriculum supplement. The nonprofit has introduced it, with the help of Kansas State University, to elementary schools across that state.

In September, Fink launched the CHAMPsitting service, providing free babysitting to military families. More than 150 UMD students have applied, and she’s accepted around 50 so far. Each CHAMPsitter undergoes a background check and a rigorous training process: They learn about military culture and babysitting methods, as well as receive CPR and first aid training and certification, all paid for by the nonprofit.

E.J. White ’15 was one of the first CHAMPsitters.

Reading Smiley

“I really saw Jen’s passion, and I come from a big military family so it really resonated with me,” he says. He’s helped parents who need to get to doctor’s appointments, run errands or want to have quiet dinner out. As the oldest in a big family, White says, “I’m really used to dealing with younger kids, and I just like giving back and being a mentor.”

Currently, pairs of CHAMPsitters go out several times a week to Walter Reed and the Operation Homefront Village in Gaithersburg.

Senora Malone lives in the village with her husband, who served in the army and suffered a traumatic brain injury and has post-traumatic stress disorder. They have three young children.

“A lot of wounded warrior families are really hesitant about people coming into your home,” she says. “There is a true detachment [from civilians], a lack of understanding of military life… It’s great to have a sitter that is well-trained and understands and can really take compassion when it comes to military families.”

Sitter

Operation CHAMPS is volunteer-run and operates on individual donations. Fink spent her winter break writing grant proposals, and hopes her nonprofit will be on more solid financial footing by the end of the summer. Ideally, she would like to run Operation CHAMPS as her full-time job and expand it nationwide; several universities have already reached out to express interest.

She’s working to expand her programs: On March 28, Operation CHAMPS is partnering with the Fleet and Family Support Center for “CHAMP Camp and Date Night,” when CHAMPsitters will entertain children while their parents attend healthy relationship workshops, partner yoga and more. On April 5, during the Month of the Military Child, she intends to bring a UMD DJ, hip-hop groups and student athletes, as well as CHAMPsitters, out to Walter Reed for a fun run and fitness fair.

“Jen’s mind is brilliant,” Malone says. “For her to have assembled the team she has, it says a lot about that generation and the community out there. It gives military families a peace of mind that there’s still a space for love and communication and growth.”

Want to help? Operation CHAMPS is looking for donations, sponsors, volunteers and more. Contact Fink at jen@operationchamps.org or visit the Operation CHAMPS website to learn more.

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