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Originally published March 18, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 18, 2007 at 2:02 AM

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Sandy Bonvouloir: "The kids are my absolute heroes"

For most Americans, the fighting in Iraq unfolds from afar. But for others, including these six Puget Sound-area residents, the war is close to home.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Sandy Bonvouloir, 50, Olympia, elementary-school counselor

Sandy Bonvouloir's main focus — indeed, her constant passion — is helping the children of soldiers cope with their fears.

It's been that way since her first week as a newly-minted elementary-school counselor on the Fort Lewis military post — a career that began the very week of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

In the aftermath, as soldiers were sent to Afghanistan and then Iraq, her students struggled with anxieties most kids need never shoulder.

"The hardest time is when a parent gets injured — like loses a leg," a fifth-grader explained during recess. "If they're hurt, I'm hurt."

Bonvouloir estimates that half the nearly 1,900 grade-school students on the military post have a parent in Iraq.

As the war continued, students had behavior problems, depression and were emotionally fragile. Helping them become resilient became crucial.

"When a family member deploys, the family is turned upside down," Bonvouloir said. "The school is the only stable force in their lives. They rely on that a lot."

Twice a week in a special classroom at Hillside Elementary School, Bonvouloir helps kids identify a range of feelings beyond mad, sad and glad. She helps them judge the intensity of those emotions and to use positive thoughts and actions such as drawing, laughing or dancing to feel better.

Bonvouloir has filled the classroom with practical tools: a poster on how to keep in touch with mom or dad; a globe to locate where they've gone; a bar graph that shows way more troops come home safely than don't, and books with titles such as, "Mommy, You're My Hero."

"We pass around the tissues, too," one fifth-grader observed. "People are sentimental."

The rest of the time Bonvouloir gives hugs on the playground, provides one-on-one guidance, fields a hundred questions and handles small crises. She reminds the children that they, too, are serving the country as "everyday heroes" — people of courage even when scared. Through it all, she's learned that kids can bounce back from tough experiences — if they can talk about them.

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This caretaker of so many tender emotions must care for herself as well — with affirmations, exercise and an occasional good cry. She keeps it together on the job, but the children's pain is in her heart when she leaves.

Friends ask how she stands the work. It comes down to hope and faith: She has to believe the children will survive, and that their challenges are part of a bigger plan.

She's now helping one boy, whose dad died in Iraq, simply by being someone he can talk to and trust. "I just need to be with him. He's going to make it."

— Marsha King

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