As of 2015, some 5,000 children had been affected by the loss of a military parent. Another 139 service members have died while deployed since then.
Joe Lewis wanted to do something for those kids, so he founded Angels of America's Fallen, a nonprofit that sponsors the developmental activities of children of military or first responder parents who die while serving.
Lewis started his career as an enlisted Army field artilleryman and then served as a Marine Corps pilot for 11 years before an injury forced him to leave the service for a civilian airline. After the 9/11 attacks, he re-entered public service with the Air National Guard as a reconnaissance pilot.
He has worked with all the service branches and lost good friends in each, as well as some from civilian agencies, he said.
It was when a good friend of his died in a crash that he realized someone needed to help the children left behind.
"I didn't have kids at the time, but my neighbor and good friend had a young son I used to play with," Lewis recalls. "One day, his dad was killed on the West Coast. His [mother] was just frozen and unresponsive. But it really made me wonder -- how is [the boy] doing?"
The seed was planted.
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He went to the Defense Department to look for information about what happens to surviving children.
According to the nonprofit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, children are at risk of mental trauma. From notification to well beyond the burial of a loved one, the emotional state of a child is fragile and they often exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress. The long-term dangers are even worse.
A study in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine in the United Kingdom found that children who experience the loss of a parent while young are more likely to experience lifelong depression, abuse drugs and alcohol, underperform in school, have higher unemployment rates and are at a greater risk of developing criminal behavior.
That same study revealed that continuity in the child's life and the support of social networks play a critical role in creating more positive outcomes.
That's where Joe Lewis and Angels of America's Fallen come in. Lewis said the idea for the organization came to him while watching one of his own kid's soccer tournaments.
Angels of America's Fallen empowers and sponsors children who have lost a parent in service with developmental activities in their own communities. This goes beyond simply paying for classes.
"We encourage and engage the kids of our fallen military and first responders in extracurricular activities outside of the home with a coach or an instructor," Lewis says. "And it's more than writing a check to pay for the activity. It's the encouragement, engagement, the long-term practice to be with them from the time they register all the way through 18 years old."
Lewis started the work in 2009 in his spare time with whatever extra money he had. Back then, he was still two years away from retirement. In 2013, the organization was founded and gained its status as a nonprofit. These days, the staff includes Lewis; his wife, Shelli; and one part-time employee. From their Colorado Springs home, they man the phones for children around the United States.
"Whether their thing is sports or dance or music, we have a commitment to these kids," Lewis says. "Families can lose their primary breadwinner, and these activities can be expensive. But once they get started, we gotta keep doing it. "
With the help of sponsors and partners like Lamar Advertising and the Chick-Fil-A Foundation, Angels of America's Fallen has taken more than 400 kids under its wings every year.
"You know, a one-time summer camp or trip to Disney World is a really great thing, and it all works together," Lewis says. "But the number of kids is so big and the impact is so great that we really need to be engaged and committed on a daily basis."
The group currently has a waiting list of more than 500 children. The only requirement to qualify for support is that the child lost a parent who was serving their country or community in the military or as a first responder. Once the child is a part of the organization, they never have to re-apply; they're automatically re-enrolled every year until they turn 18.
"These kids really deserve the support of this nation throughout their whole childhood, not just with a scholarship once they become an adult," Lewis says. "Raising awareness is just step one. Now, we need to raise the money to help them stay healthy."'
To learn more about Angels of America's Fallen or donate to the cause, visit its website.
-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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