Helena Hawryluk recalls kids taking longer to even get out of the car to attend Wounded Warriors Canada's Warrior Kids Camp last year.
But this year she was surprised to see how quickly the recent cohort was warming up to the camp.
"We were just amazed at how the kids were really quick to warm up to making connections and the peer connection, which is one of the main objectives of the program," she beamed.
Warrior Kids Camp is a two-day program, clinically designed for children exposed to the secondary effects of trauma as a result of living with a veteran or a first responder parent struggling with an operational stress injury such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Operational stress injuries are ongoing psychological difficulties related to serving in jobs like the military or first responders.
Through a variety of challenges, children learn three critical components of mental health; mental toughness, peer connection and the power of knowledge around what is an operational stress injury.
This is only the second year the camp has been in operation but because of the pandemic, many children were eager to join the program.
The camp wrapped up on Sunday as 20 kids, between the ages of nine and 16, gathered at Van-Es Camp in Strathcona County, southeast of Sherwood Park. They all wore masks and were given medals for completing the program.
This year's theme was Amazing Race Canada.
Hawryluk said the camp is designed for children that have issues with social anxiety. She believes because this year they had to go through limited social interactions, "they were really seeking that connection over the last few months," she said.
The program is dedicated to help kids learn about feelings and emotions.
Hawryluk explained that children who come from a family where a parent is dealing with a stress disorder may often become isolated. They also may get anxiety around building relationships.
"So we want to create that safe space for them," she said. "We really do focus on some micro skills in a way that helps them with these pieces that children aren't necessarily getting in the regular school program."
Nine-year-old Liana Rizzato attended the program last year and again this year. She said she learned how to handle her inner critic and her inner coach.
The inner critic is negative. "It just tells you that you can't do it," she explained.
But the inner coach, "it makes you think good things like, I'm going to do this, I'll do better next time," she said.
She said she also learned how to express her feelings "without it going everywhere."
Her favourite parts of the camp were swimming and going to the ranch.
Cpl. Andy Social, a military veteran and a guest speaker at the event, said the biggest message he had for kids and their parents is that they should feel comfortable asking for help.
"You're going to know your kid better than anybody, and if you feel that maybe they're having issues because of something that's happening at home in regards to first responders or military personnel, then reach out and ask for help," he said.
Previous years, the camp has hosted close to 30 kids for overnight stays but this year this reduced the number to 20. The children were expected to bring their own backpacks for supplies for the program and activities.
Hawryluk said facilitators were given additional training to make sure the activities were implemented in a safe manner.