To the public, Jessica Young is a Captain in the U.S. Army, but if you ask five-year-old Kindergartner Atticus Stauffer — she’s Mom. And beyond that, just like the team of Avengers on his Marvel tee-shirt, he’d tell you one more thing — his mom is a superhero.
Capt. Young is currently serving active-duty commanding a helicopter unit in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. While deployed, Atticus is under the care of his aunt and uncle, Valle Crucis locals Brie and Jason Powell, and attends school at Valle Crucis Elementary.
The transition from school-to-school for a child can be a difficult one; add the extra burden of a transfer brought on by the deployment of a parent, and an already tough situation can get worse. But Powell said five-year-old Atticus has handled the change admirably, thanks in no small part to the huge outpouring of support from the Valle Crucis community.
“Atticus handled the transition beautifully,” Powell said. “He handled it with more grace and understanding than you could have expected from most adults.
Powell said that inviting Atticus into her home, which she and her husband did just nine months after welcoming a child of their own into the world, was anything but a burden.
“We are probably the most blessed in this situation,” Powell said, referring to her family in Valle Crucis. “Atticus is just awesome. It’s been so eye-opening for me. A lot of people are saying that we are making a sacrifice in taking him on — but no. That is not the case. He is blessing to us everyday. Jess is the one who is missing out for sure.”
When Powell, along with her husband Jason — who knew in advance her sister would soon be deployed — were asked to be their nephew’s godparents, they immediately started doing research to help her give Atticus the smoothest possible transition from his home in Kansas to Valle Crucis.
“According to all of the research I did, in a big transition, most preschoolers are going to ask what a change will look like for them,” Powell said. “Where will I sleep, where will I eat lunch — things like that. Atticus looked at his mother, and the first words out of his mouth were, ‘Mommy, are some of your Army friends going to die?’”
Powell said Atticus’ level of understanding of the risk that his mother undertakes in her service to the country was acute.
“He is extremely understanding. He understands the risks involved, but he also understands that his Mom’s level of safety is as high as it can possibly be. She has a great team that she is working with,” Powell said.
And even if they have no direct contact with Capt. Young, she has a great team at home as well. Valle Crucis School Social Worker Amy Michael, along with her intern Appalachian State University Masters of Social Work student Jordan Brown, have spearheaded an effort to get a massive care package to Young and her unit.
Called “Operation Carry the Love,” the effort has worked to collect everyday comfort items that are difficult for soldiers to obtain in Afghanistan, junk food, snacks, etc. Young said that simple items like these were a huge boost to morale, especially for troops who don’t often receive packages from home.
Powell said that, fortunately, Atticus and his mom are able to enjoy a certain amount of contact through video chat. Atticus takes his mother around via cellphone, introducing her to aspects of his life in Valle Crucis, including allowing her to remote-contact into a skate night fundraiser recently held for Operation Carry the Love.
The Kindergartner — who said he was better able to skate on carpet than the polished wood floor — was able to wheel his mom around and introduce her to some of his friends who had come out to support her unit.
For his part, Atticus gets to take part in his mom’s work by proxy with the assistance of a well-traveled stuff animal called “Baby Cow.”
Before she left on deployment, Young purchased a twin pair of stuffed animals — one for her, one for Atticus. Young took her Baby Cow overseas where it now lives an exciting life full of helicopter flight and hard, dusty work in the warzone.
Atticus is able to follow his mom’s journey through the photos of Baby Cow she sends back home. Easily the most plush American on base, Young sends photos of the stuffed animal flying helicopters, taking part in target practice and being held by grim-faced, muscle-bound soldiers who, according to Powell, pose for the inescapably cute photos only under her sister’s command.
Powell said, along with cherishing the opportunity Atticus has to interact with his mother while she was gone, she was also immensely grateful for the amount of support Atticus and her family had gotten, both from Valle Crucis School and the community at large.
“The Valle Crucis community has uplifted us so much,” Powell said. “The school has been absolutely amazing and then, beyond that, even the citizens here have just been unreal as far as sending us their love and always asking, ‘what do you need, what can we do to make your life easier.’”
Next week, during the Kindergarten Thanksgiving program, Valle Crucis school plans a video chat with Capt. Young so she can take part in the event.
Valle Crucis is still in the process of collecting material to be shipped to the service men and women under Capt. Young’s command. Anyone interested in donating can contact Amy Michael at the school by calling (828) 963-4712.