- Courtesy Angels of America's Fallen
- Children left behind when a parent dies struggle with that loss during their growing-up years.
The stark reality children of military members or first responders face: Sometimes your parent may leave for work and never come home. The loss of that parent reshapes the entire trajectory of children's lives, forever changing how they'll grow into adulthood, impacting every choice they make.
Angels of America's Fallen (AAF; aoafallen.org) devotes itself to mentoring children of those who have given their lives to protect others, by providing positive outlets for them to develop while missing one of their most important mentors. Founder and CEO Joe Lewis, a retired lieutenant colonel with a 25-year career spanning multiple branches of the military, says that children who lose one of their parents in their formative years are more likely than their peers to experience anxiety, depression, substance abuse and other problems, as well as commit suicide.
"Not only are these children facing these higher risks because of the loss of their parent," says Lewis, "that parent is one of the very people who would have helped them when they were hurting."
Support after loss factors as a key determinant in how well kids overcome the potential challenges ahead. For AAF, that support lies in providing kids with opportunities for growth through activities like making art, playing music or sports, baking and dance. Kids are not stuck forever with what they choose, either. Lewis says that's because AAF wants to direct children toward healthy choices, not force them to remain in an activity they may discover they don't enjoy.
"We want to help [them] find positive outlets for their grief," says Lewis. "We encourage them to invest in themselves and practice something that fits in their development."
AAF does not have set criteria for children who can apply, such as limiting the opportunity only to those whose parent died in combat. Military personnel and first responders have a higher rate of suicide and other life-limiting factors. They may have survived danger in the moment, but it can often follow them well into the future.
Sponsorship lasts until a participating child turns 18, and costs the nonprofit around $1,500 each year. With an average participation length of 11 years, regular funding remains a critical challenge, and AAF's wait list stands at 292. AAF currently mentors 330 children, and they won't move a child off the wait list unless they know they can keep their commitment through to adulthood. While they are supported through strategic partnerships with local sports and arts groups, schools and businesses, Lewis says regular monthly sponsorships go a long way toward helping shorten that wait list. They're also seeking an experienced fundraiser to help raise awareness of the cause.
"We are only able to make this work when people give out of the kindness of their hearts," Lewis says. "We have a large concentration of military bases and first responders. I think it's important for our community to take care of the children of those who have given their lives in service."