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Military Child of the Year overcame personal struggles to create online resource to help others

Elena Ashburn, a senior at Cooper City High School (Fla.) embraces her dad, Col. Matt Ashburn of U.S. Southern Command. Elena is the 2022 Military Child of the Year for the Army. Photo credit: Courtesy photo

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WASHINGTON - Embodying the resiliency of military children, Elena Ashburn, the 2022 Operation Homefront Military Child of the Year for the Army, was able to turn her personal challenges into positive resources for others.

During one year at Carlisle High School - her first public school - she became student body president, joined the school's theatre company and made friends to whom she could finally relate.

The daunting reality most military children face every school year hit Elena as her father, Col. Matt Ashburn, graduated from the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks in 2019 and moved to Miami, Florida for an assignment with U.S. Southern Command.

Elena built resilience over her five permanent change of station moves, but this one hit the hardest. She realized she could not continue with untreated mental health problems and spoke to her parents about seeking help.

Moving from the Appalachian valleys of Pennsylvania to Pembroke Pines, Florida, the Ashburn family struggled to find a home in a bustling South Florida housing market and spent the first two months of the school year living in the family's trailer.

"It definitely got worse as time went on," Elena said. "I just realized at one point that this was a very unhealthy way to live."

Elena then sought the help of a therapist. And to help cope, she video-chatted with her best friend from Carlisle, Matthew Oh.

Oh, now stationed with his Army father in South Korea, brainstormed on the construction of a website with Elena. They wanted a place where military children could find others who shared their experiences and their feelings of angst and loneliness each time they had to reset their lives.

And from their long distance conversations, they created Bloom, an online resource for military teens that quickly grew from a small operation to one with more than 20 teen contributors from across the armed forces that reaches more than 2,500 of their peers worldwide.

Through personal, shared experiences on the site, Elena found she could empathize with other military youth dealing with similar challenges.

"I just tried to be honest about what it's like to be a military teen," said Elena. "Because it's hard. There's other kids who are (going) through the same thing. You're not alone. It's normal feeling like this."

Bloom contains blog entries and articles on moving, family separation, and world travel, as well as poetry and art. The website highlights a different teen and their achievements each month, and even discusses current events such as the conflict in Ukraine through the eyes of military children.

The virtual platform launched on April 10, 2020, just as students began homeschooling due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The launch came at an opportune time as many students found themselves separated from their classroom environments and peers.

In October, Bloom contributors took part in a study with the National Military Family Association that surveyed more than 2,000 military adolescents. The results from NMFA revealed that more than 42% of military teenagers reported low mental well-being as they struggled with feelings of isolation due to separation from deployed parents or friends and family. Another 45% said they had moderate feelings of well-being.

Elena could relate to many of the stories shared on the site. Besides her mental health struggles, she had already overcome a congenital heart condition. After her birth in Germany in 2003, doctors diagnosed her with the condition and she later received treatment at Walter Reed Hospital near Washington, D.C.

"Elena has always been resilient," said her father. "She is intelligent and very driven, we are extremely proud parents."

During her middle school years when her family lived in Alabama, she said she felt disconnected from the community. Military teens have the benefit of potentially traveling and living abroad, but also suffer from poor mental health and not being connected to the communities where they live.

The first time she faced the reality of military separations came at age three, when her father deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom during the surge in Iraq. Elena's mom, Katarina, said her children learned to adjust to their father being away from home by spending every day together.

"Our family took it one year at a time," Katarina said. "Elena has such a bright future and I can't wait to see what it holds."

Although she battled depression, she didn't let it slow her down. She continues her resiliency today at Cooper City High School in Cooper City, Florida, where she is the editor in chief of the student newspaper. When her family again struggled with housing insecurity before her senior year, her article titled "We Need a Home" captured the attention of Department of Defense and Army leaders in Washington.

Elena said she has not decided where she will attend college yet, but plans to study public policy or journalism. She added that she will continue her outreach work with Bloom and will remain a regular contributor to the site.

"(Bloom) has given me so much," Elena said. "It's given me a community with mentors and people that I never would have dreamed would work with me. It's changed my life. It's made me a better person and a better leader."

Bloom will soon launch its community guide about military teen life.

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