Gone, never forgotten

Senior Airman Christina Varland, 56th Component Maintenance Squadron administration specialist, participates as a mentor for the Transition Assistance Program for Survivors camp in Scottsdale, Arizona Dec. 5, 2015. TAPS is different from other grief programs in that the directors make a point to match the children with active-duty mentors. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Staci Miller)

Senior Airman Christina Varland, 56th Component Maintenance Squadron administration specialist, participates as a mentor for the Transition Assistance Program for Survivors camp in Scottsdale, Arizona Dec. 5, 2015. TAPS is different from other grief programs in that the directors make a point to match the children with active-duty mentors. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Staci Miller)

LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. -- Losing a loved one who served in the military can be devastating to a child, but one program aims to show children they're not alone and are still part of the military family.

Thunderbolts from Luke Air Force Base participated as mentors in the Transition Assistance Program for Survivors camp Dec. 5 in Scottsdale.

"TAPS provides an opportunity for grieving children to honor and remember their loved one," said Vanessa Daley, TAPS project manager. "That's the whole point of this weekend. We call it a 'good grief' camp because we want them to leave here with their little hearts full, and we want them to know they're still part of the military. We don't focus a ton on the death itself. We focus more on coping skills and things they can do once they leave here to work through the grief they still have."

TAPS is different from other grief programs in that the directors make a point to match the children with active-duty mentors for a specific reason -- the continued involvement in the military family. The goal is to help children build lasting relationships that reconnect them to the military life they once knew. The children also develop coping skills and support systems as they build friendships with other kids who understand what they are living through.

"We are a connection to the military for these surviving children," Daley said. "For some of these kids, the military is the only life they've known, so the military members coming here is really important. These kids know the mentors are military and this is a huge deal to them because they miss it. It's been a huge part of their lives, and just knowing that someone in the military cares is important."

The mentors spent the day engaging with the children and participated in activities right beside them. The activities varied depending on age but the overall theme was the same -companionship.

"It was like a big brother, big sister camp where we, as mentors, got to spend the day with them and form a connection," said Senior Airman Christina Varland, 56th Component Maintenance Squadron administration specialist. "At the beginning of the day, the kids seemed quiet and closed off but they definitely opened up by the end. It was a fun process to see and be a part of."

TAPS camps take place all over the country and are open to anyone who lost a service member.

"We don't have any expiration date for our services," Daley said. "Regardless of the relationship the person had with the service member, they're welcome here. If they loved that service member then they're part of the TAPS family."

TAPS is not only beneficial to the children, but to the military mentors as well.

"It was really rewarding to be there and get to know these kids," Varland said. "This program shows them they're not alone, and there are people out there who want to help."