September 3, 2007

When the cheering stops

LP minister seeks support for program to help military families

By Ivan Raconteur
Staff Writer

Rev. Gerald Schwanke of Lester Prairie understood the needs of soldiers and their families, and he wanted to do something to help. The only question was, “How?”

Schwanke and other members of the clergy watched the growing number of Minnesota soldiers returning from Iraq and wondered what they could do to help them adjust to life after deployment.

Although he found plenty of information about the needs of families affected by deployment, Schwanke found little in the way of specific programs to provide assistance, and limited resources to prepare these families for reintegration.

Schwanke has been a minister for 19 years, and has spent the last 16 of those years at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Lester Prairie.

He is working on a masters degree in marriage and family counseling, with a focus on play therapy, at Minnesota State University - Mankato.

Through his work, and through conversations he had with members of the military who had returned home after being deployed overseas, Schwanke came to understand the needs of these soldiers and their families.

He set about developing his own program to help these families with the reintegration process.

He began by studying successful therapy programs that were developed during the 1950s.

He then adapted this methodology for the needs of military families.

With the help of his advisor and his class of licensed therapists at the university, he refined the program.

The result is “When the cheering stops: a reintegration program for military families.”

The goal is to provide families with skills they will need during the reintegration process.

It is a child-centered program that utilizes a family play therapy approach to teach parents four things:

• How to structure their family after deployment;

• How to set limits that aid families in constructive discipline;

• How to focus on children’s feelings and learn to listen and gain an understanding of what they are experiencing;

• How to put the parents in a position where they can use their strengths and resources for their own reintegration.

A different approach

Schwanke said he wants to provide good information in a non-threatening way.

“No one is forcing therapy on them. We want to avoid re-traumatizing them,” Schwanke said.

One thing that is different about this program is that it is confidential. It is intended to provide a way for soldiers to get the help they need without subjecting them to the label or stigma of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The play therapy element is important because it allows families to use games to teach rules, structure, and limits in their own homes after the program is complete.

The program includes 10 sessions. The first is an individual parental evaluation to determine if the program is right for each family.

Schwanke said the program is not designed for some people who have acute PTSD or more serious issues that need special attention, but said he could refer people in those situations to other resources.

The second session is an individual family evaluation, and the final seven sessions are group activities.

Schwanke said the group approach is helpful because group members can form a support base and connections to aid in the long-term adjustment process.

He said his goal for the program is to have five to seven families in the program at a time.

“This type of therapy has a rich history and is well-researched. It is not some fly-by-night therapy. Those that are willing to work with it will get benefits from it,” Schwanke said.

The program will be conducted at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Hutchinson.

Schwanke chose this site because the church has a gym where activities can take place.

Although it is associated with two churches, Schwanke made it clear that there is no spiritual element to the program.

“We can handle that on the side for those who request it,” Schwanke said.

He explained that Our Savior’s Pastor Kevin Oster will not be involved in the program, but could provide another resource for program participants.

“When the Cheering Stops” is not a quick fix. It is intended to be the starting point for families to begin the reintegration process.

Schwanke said that participants in the program will become “therapists in their own homes,” and will establish “counseling offices” in their homes that they will use for ongoing therapy after the program ends.

“The goal of the program is to rebuild the family from the ground up, including the soldier, spouse or partner, and the children.”

Schwanke explained that soldiers often change while they are deployed, and their spouses and children change while the soldier is gone.

“Two worlds have to be rebuilt,” Schwanke said.

He added that soldiers are often told to be patient during the reintegration process.

“How can they be patient when everything is in turmoil? This program allows them to take an active part in their reintegration,” Schwanke said.

Funding sources needed

The program has been established. Schwanke now needs to find funding sources to implement it.

He is asking for support from veterans’ groups, community groups, and businesses to help fund the program.

“These people have made sacrifices and served our country, and now, we want to offer them a quality program to help them adjust now that they are back home,” Schwanke said.

Anyone who has questions about the program or wishes to make a donation can contact Schwanke at St. Peter Lutheran Church (320) 395-2811. Checks can be made out to the church with a notation that the funds are for the reintegration program. Donations are being processed through the church to provide accountability, Schwanke said.

He hopes to begin the program this fall, but the start date will depend upon securing funding.

Schwanke said he will provide more specific information about dates and how people can participate when funds become available.

Want to help?

For more information about “When the Cheering Stops,” or to make a donation, contact Rev. Gerald Schwanke (320) 395-2811. Donations can be sent to St. Peter Lutheran Church, 77 Second Avenue South, PO Box 217, Lester Prairie, MN 55354. Checks can be made out to the church, with a note that the funds are for the reintegration program.

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