A new initiative is seeking the voices of military-connected American youth to further shed light on the experiences of “hidden volunteers” — children who live with and serve wounded, ill or injured service members and veterans.
Children and young people are asked to submit their stories in the way they want to tell them – through writing, drawing, filming, photography or other means. It’s the start of the Untold Story Challenge created by History Channel and A&E Networks in partnership with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation. The final form of the project is yet to be determined as officials are intentionally keeping it very broad, said Rashi Venkataraman Romanoff, executive vice president of the Dole Foundation, which oversees the Hidden Helpers Coalition.
The idea is to give those kids a voice because “those families aren’t easy to see,” she said. “But it also gives kids a chance to see themselves in other people’s stories.”
To submit materials, visit hiddenheroes.org/untoldstory. The closing date for these initial entries is January 20th and winners and prizes will be announced in April. But the portal will remain open to encourage more stories, officials said. Military and veteran children and young adults ages 24 and under are eligible.
The coalition, launched a year ago at the White House, is a partnership with First Lady Jill Biden’s Joining Forces Initiative, the Dole Foundation and the Wounded Warrior Project in response to a study highlighting concerns about the 2, 3 million children and young adults are military and veteran caregivers.
The coalition has grown from 60 to 78 partners, with a diverse group of private, non-profit, government and other entities. The History Channel is one of the new partners. Romanoff said the “Untold Story Challenge” is an example of the commitments members have brought to the table.
“Those kids out there need our help and they need our support. There are 2.3 million in every corner of the country who need more support and more services,” Romanoff said.
Over the past year, “a fire has been lit for us and our partners to support the children and youth who are helping to care for our wounded, ill or injured service members,” said Steve Schwab, Dole Foundation CEO and co-chair by the coalition in a statement announcing the progress and initiatives.
“These remarkable young people not only share in the sacrifices their loved ones have made for our country, but they take responsibility for care that the outside world never sees and certainly does not understand,” said retired Lt. Gen. Mike Linnington, CEO of Wounded Warrior Project and co-chair of the coalition.
“Coalition members are working hard to adapt existing programs or develop new initiatives to support the unique needs of this population.”
The foundation’s study found that children of military caregivers struggle with stigma and misunderstanding in social and medical settings, leading to levels of stress that can affect their emotional and psychological development and long-term well-being. These children also take on household and family responsibilities and suffer from wasted time with their caregiving parent, who must divide their attention to the veteran’s caregiving needs.
Another important effort will be the creation of new content and peer support resources for youth caregivers and their families. Research has shown that the power of peer support in the military veteran community cannot be overstated, Romanoff said.
“We want to create a space created by hidden helpers, for hidden helpers, to provide resources to fill the gaps in services we know they and their families face to really make that long-term impact “, she said.
Hearing these stories and connecting with others is important for foster families, said Kristin Christensen, a Dole grantee who met her husband after his injuries and married him in 2013. “I never saw myself as a caregiver,” she said. When he tried to work after retiring from the Navy on medical grounds and she tried to work full-time, his clerk at the VA told her she was his caregiver.
“When she made me aware of all the things I had done, I realized that I was actually a caregiver, and I started thinking more about what that meant,” Christensen said.
The case worker put her in touch with various resources, and at an Operation Homefront retreat, she met a Dole grantee who motivated her to learn more about the foundation. In 2021 she became a Dole Fellow.
“The Dole Foundation gives me a platform, an opportunity to share my story and help other military families identify as caregivers,” Christensen said.
“The biggest problem is that people don’t identify themselves as caregivers, so they’re not looking for resources, help or information that could help them,” she said.
This peer support is essential. “Someone in the same position understands. You can just vent and they won’t judge you,” she said. “People don’t see what’s happening at home,” she said.
Her husband suffers from debilitating headaches, memory loss and other problems, and she takes care of every aspect of his daily life. Some of the resources they have been able to access include short-term help at home, help with meal preparation, house cleaning and laundry.
“Sometimes it’s just way too overwhelming,” Christensen said. “A woman helped me fold a mountain of laundry one day and made me dinner while I was picking up the kids from school.”
She has a 15 year old and a 6 year old at home who also benefit from these resources because she can spend more time with them.
A variety of connections made through the Dole Foundation’s Hidden Helpers provide resources. One example is Our Military Kids, which has provided scholarships for their children to play soccer.
Karen has reported on military families, quality of life and consumer issues for the Military Times for more than 30 years and is a co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families. She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Florida and Athens, Georgia.