By Rebecca LaFlure
Killeen Daily Herald
In between prom plans, graduation portraits, final exams and post-high school preparations, Odessa Brown must also cope with the absence of her stepfather – who is currently on his fourth deployment to Iraq with the U.S. Army.
"It's hard to keep in touch with him. It's hard to keep a good relationship with someone who's not there," she said. "I know I love him and that he loves me. That's the only way we get through it."
Brown is a senior at Shoemaker High School, where 80 percent of the graduating class is from military families. Since fifth grade, the seniors have persevered through frequent moves, multiple deployments and the mental drain of two wars.
To celebrate the students' resilience, Shoemaker High School held a Senior Survivor Day Friday. The daylong event featured 20 stations from rock climbing to tug-of-war to an obstacle course.
Wearing lime-green shirts that read, "Still Standing Strong," students moved from station to station in what was dubbed the high school's massive "group therapy session."
"Home isn't the safe place any more. The safe place is school because home doesn't exist," said Tracy Kehrer, an advocate of Scott & White's Homefront Project, one of the event's sponsors.
"We have 1 percent of the American population that has bore 100 percent of the burden of this global war on terror. ... My point is to now love the warriors' families who have sacrificed the most."
Each activity was designed to build leadership and teamwork skills and perhaps most notably, allowed the seniors to simply be children.
"They have to play so many different roles that the child part is lost sometimes. It gives them that release, it gives them that opportunity to be a child, to talk to their friends, hang out and realize that people care about their situation," said Central Hicks, a senior Advancement Via Individual Determination teacher and head girls soccer coach.
The event was a culmination of hard work and generosity from many parts of the community.
The school's counselors and Homefront Project organized the day of play while Fun Solutions and the Peaceable Kingdom Retreat for Children brought in a variety of inflatable games and challenge course activities.
Wal-Mart donated several gift cards and a laptop computer as a door prize. CiCi's Pizza provided the food.
"They take care of home. They take care of brother and sister. They have to cook them dinner when they get home," said Jo Watson, a Shoemaker counselor. "They're already expected to be adults out there, so we're giving them some tools to use in situations they may find themselves in once they graduate."
Jonathon Player, a senior whose father has been deployed to Iraq four times, said the day's activities served as a brief escape from the day-to-day challenges that accompany being a military child.
"We're all in the same boat. We all can relate," he said. "It's a sanctuary to forget all the stuff that's at home and come here and have a good time."