A new initiative is seeking out the voices of America’s military-connected caregiving youth to further shine a light on the experiences of “hidden helpers” — children living with and serving wounded, ill or injured service members and veterans.
Children and young adults are asked to submit their stories in the way they want to tell them — through writing, drawing, film, photography or other means. It’s the beginning of the “Untold Story Challenge,” launched by the History Channel and A&E Networks in partnership with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation. The final form of the project hasn’t yet been 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 these children a voice because “these families aren’t readily seen,” she said. “But it’s also giving kids the opportunities to see themselves in the stories of others.”
To submit materials, visit hiddenheroes.org/untoldstory. The deadline for these initial entries is Jan. 20, 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 age 24 and under are eligible.
The coalition, which was launched a year ago at the White House, is a partnership with First Lady Jill Biden’s Joining Forces Initiative, the Dole Foundation and Wounded Warrior Project in response to a study that highlighted concerns about the 2.3 million children and young adults who are military and veteran caregivers.
The coalition has grown from 60 partners to 78, with a diverse group of private, nonprofit, government and other entities. The History Channel is among the new partners. Romanoff said the “Untold Story Challenge” is an example of the commitments the members have brought to the table.
“These kids out there need our help and they need our support. There are 2.3 million in every corner of the country who require more support and more services,” Romanoff said.
In the past year, “a fire has been lit for us and our partners to support the children and youth helping take care of our wounded, ill or injured service members,” said Steve Schwab, CEO of the Dole Foundation and co-chair of the coalition, in a statement announcing the progress and the initiatives.
“These remarkable young people not only share in the sacrifices their loved ones made to our country, but they assume caregiving responsibilities 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.
“The members of the coalition are working hard to adapt already existing programming or develop new initiatives to support the unique needs of this population.”
The foundation’s study found that military caregiver kids struggle with feelings of stigmatization and being misunderstood in social and health care settings, leading to levels of distress 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 time lost with their caregiver parent who must divide their attention to meet the veteran’s care needs.
Another important effort will be creating new content and peer support resources for the caregiving youth and their families. Research has shown that the power of peer support in the military-veteran community can’t be overstated, Romanoff said.
“We want to create a space built by hidden helpers for hidden helpers to be able to provide resources to fill the gaps in services that we know they and their families are facing, to really have this long-term impact,” she said.
Hearing these stories and connecting with others is important to caregiver families, said Kristin Christensen, a Dole fellow who met her husband after his injuries and married him in 2013. “I never, ever thought of myself as a caregiver,” she said. As he struggled to work after being medically retired from the Navy, and she was trying to work full time, his case worker at the VA told her she was his caregiver.
“Once she pointed out all the things I’d been doing, it became clear to me I was indeed a caregiver, and I began looking more into what that meant,” Christensen said.
The case worker put her in touch with different resources and, at an Operation Homefront retreat, she met a Dole fellow who motivated her to find out more about the foundation. She became a Dole fellow in 2021.
“The Dole Foundation gives me a platform, an opportunity to talk about my story and help other military families identify as caregivers,” Christensen said.
“The biggest problem is people don’t identify themselves as caregivers, so they don’t look for resources or help or information that could help them,” she said.
That peer support is essential. “Someone in the same position understands. You can just vent, and they don’t judge you,” she said. “People don’t see what happens at home,” she said.
Her husband suffers from debilitating headaches, memory loss and other issues, and she manages every aspect of his day-to-day life. Among the resources they’ve been able to tap into is short-term assistance at home, helping with meal prep, home cleaning and laundry.
“Sometimes it’s just way too overwhelming<” Christensen said. “One woman helped me fold a mountain of laundry one day and started supper for me while I went to get the kids from school.”
She has a 15-year-old and 6-year-old at home, and they benefit from these resources, too, because she’s able to 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 her children to be able to play soccer.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is 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, Fla., and Athens, Ga.