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NIAGARA FALLS – For most kids, summer camp is a chance to get away from their parents.

But at a first-time camp at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, it’s a chance for many to get closer.

This week, about 44 military youngsters from across the state, ages 8 to 12, are participating in a day “spy” camp offered through a federal grant administered by Jefferson County Cornell Cooperative Extension.

The camp – dubbed Operation: Catch Me If You Can – wraps up a full week of activities today.

Campers get to bond with other military children, bare feelings about issues common to them, including the deployment of their parents overseas, and learn new things in an environment close to a military installation.

And in some cases, parents working on the base were able to stop in and join them for lunch.

The Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station is home to the Air Force Reserve’s 914th Airlift Wing and the 107th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard.

“It’s the best week ever,” said 11-year-old Rhylee Jung, of Sanborn, who has two parents in the 107th Airlift Wing.

“Infinitely best week ever,” added her new friend, Mikhail Skapinski, 8, of Kenmore, who came to the U.S. from Russia five years ago and whose dad, 914th Public Affairs Officer Sgt. Joseph J. McKee, takes professional photographs for base publicity.

One of those photos – a military plane flying over the falls – was displayed on a banner for campers to enjoy.

Jeanne Goetze, family readiness manager for families and service members in the 107th Airlift Wing, said the camp is an outlet for military children.

“If their members are deployed, it gets them away from that,” said Goetze. “And since we are geographically dispersed, some of the spouses (and their children) would never meet.” Most campers live within an hour drive of the Falls base.

Other camp events and activities during the week included how to fingerprint, computer security, fire department presentations and the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office K-9 units. And there were also crafts, lunch and snacks.

Stephanie Graf, the state 4-H military liaison who wrote the grant for the day camp, said Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County received $9,000 to run the camp.

Graf said the grant has never been offered before in New York State. She said children with family in the Air Force, Army and Navy, both reserves, and the Guard, were all eligible to participate.

“They are mostly having fun,” Graf said of the campers. “I find that the military kids are very mature socially, very adaptable in social situations. It doesn’t matter who they sit next to. They have a great time together.”

Graf said in the Niagara Falls area – where military families do not live on the base – kids don’t necessarily go to a school with any military children. Therefore, the camp offered the opportunity for kids to get together in a nurturing setting.

Counselor Gabe Curcione, 15, of Niagara Falls, who has family in the military, said he sees the value of a camp that’s just for military children.

“I like how people understand how military kids feel here,” Gabe said. “When you’re at home and try to show kids how it feels, they really don’t know. Here people know how it feels when your parents are deployed. They understand.”

New best friends MacKenzie Patterson, 11, of Wheatfield, and Katelyn Allan, 10, of Lancaster – both with fathers in the 107th Airlift Wing – said they enjoyed cracking codes, making crafts and learning what spies do – but also enjoyed meeting other military kids.

“It’s nice. Now I have a friend who understands how it’s hard when your dad or mom is deployed. People at school don’t understand,” said MacKenzie, who added, “This was my first time in camp.”

“This is my first time, too, but it won’t be my last,” Katelyn said.

Funding for the camp is on a year-to-year basis. Graf said they hope to continue the program next year.

email: nfischer@buffnews.com