When going through nominations for the Our Military Kids Courageous Kids contest in 2022, one child’s story stood out so much that it spurred the creation of a new award.
Twelve-year-old Azara is the daughter of two Air Force veteran parents – a father who is combat-injured and a mother who developed health issues as a result of caring for her husband.
“My whole life, my mom has been the best at working with all the curveballs thrown at her,” Azara said in story published on the Our Military Kids website. “She has helped us when we are sad and always loves and takes care of us. It is still hard because Mom doesn’t feel good a lot of the time. [But] she is the best mom anyone could have.”
Azara, who had started volunteering with OMK a few months prior to the organization’s partnership with the Hidden Helper Coalition, became OMK’s first recipient of the Hidden Helper Hero Award.
“When I learned the news that I was selected to be the first Hidden Helper Hero, not only was I astonished, I was honored,” she told Reserve + National Guard Magazine via email. “My life is being represented in a way that shows the world the undertaking of kids like me. I thanked God for my struggles and especially that he helped me to share them. I prayed that he would help me to show him and be an example of Christ.”
Azara said the Our Military Kids program is amazing and her family has “benefited so much” from it.
“We are blessed by the grants that they provide for us, I have been able to learn ballet, run track, play the violin, play baseball, basketball and soccer,” she said. “My family and I could not be more thankful for what Our Military Kids has provided for us. What I LOVE most is that every time we visit their office, I feel at home.”
Michelle Criqui, Our Military Kids marketing and communications manager, said Azara was initially nominated through the regular contest for the Air Force, but her story spoke to them so much that they felt it needed to be recognized separately.
“It’s so amazing to see how she’s gone through so much and is able to talk about it with such eloquence … She’s able to focus on what she’s learned from this experience and use it to help give back to other military kids,” Criqui said.
An analysis of American Community Survey data from 2015–2019 determined that more than 2 million children under 18 years old live with a disabled veteran, according to “Hidden Helpers at the Frontlines of Caregiving,” a November 2021 report prepared for the Elizabeth Dole Foundation.
“This is a very real thing that these kids are facing,” Criqui said. “A lot of times it’s not something they’re talking about and sharing with peers … It became so clear as we were working on the contest that we need to highlight this separate from [the other awards] … We needed to set aside a special category for hidden helpers and we really just want them to not be so hidden anymore.”
The Hidden Helper Hero Award is meant to “focus in on the kids impacting their communities” and who are examples to other military children. It recognizes a child who went above and beyond in caregiving duties for a recovering parent. This award, selected by the contest committee, comes with a $300 stipend – not an activity grant – and a customized certificate.
While just the second year for the Hidden Helper Hero Award, 2023 marks the third year of the overall contest, for which children ages 3 to 18 who have a Guard or reserve parent deployed or a parent recovering from combat-related injuries can be nominated.
Over the past three years, Criqui said, nominations have grown “exponentially.” There were roughly 200 nominations the first year, 300 the second and the contest is on track to hit 500 for 2023.
“It’s a point of pride for them, something they can carry with them and help them to feel special in their role as military kid, especially for those who don’t necessary feel like military kids all the time,” she said.