Guard Daughters Hold First 'Sisterhood' Conference

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That theme provided the inspiration for an idea by two California National Guard daughters, but instead of a pair of jeans, battle dress uniforms became the shared bond among more than 100 girls.

Kaylei Deakin and Moranda Hern, both 17, met at California first lady Maria Shriver's 2008 Women's Conference. The girls found they had many things in common, including a need to feel understood while going through the challenges that military deployments bring to families.

After more than a year of planning and organizing, Deakin and Hern brought teenage girls together from across California March 12-14, a weekend close to the seventh anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq.

"I remember watching stories about the war in class, and people would giggle and laugh as the bombs were going off," said Kaylei, whose father left to fight in Afghanistan a few years later, when she was 13. "I was so worried ... thinking about what was going on over there."

She said her father's deployment affected her family long before and long after he left California. She felt like no one really understood the empty feeling she had inside as she watched her world change dramatically while her dad was deployed, she recalled.

For the two years he was gone, Kaylei said, she felt depressed and lonely and believed she needed to step up in her father's absence to provide strength beside her mother and take over in areas of sibling discipline.

When Kaylei met Moranda, they found they shared similar experiences. Moranda's father is in the Air Guard, while Kaylei's father is in the Army Guard. And at times when the girls needed their friends' support the most, the girls said, they felt very much alone.

"People saw a big change in me after my dad left, and a lot of them just stopped coming around, because they weren't sure of what to say or how to act around me," said Moranda, whose father deployed to Afghanistan on very short notice when she was 15. "I felt like I was just some weird person who couldn't get it together."

Realizing thousands of girls were going through similar experiences, Kaylei and Moranda decided to form a support network and organize a conference for daughters of military members. The girls put together a proposal and brought a presentation to Air Force Brig. Gen. Mary J. Kight, who was then California's assistant adjutant general and now is adjutant general, whom the girls had met at the 2008 Women's Conference.

Kight was impressed and vowed to do everything she could to support the effort.

"The Guard provided the Sisterhood of the Traveling BDUs with the structure, and the girls provided all the innovation, imagination and creativity," she said. "I am so proud of them for seeing this through, and what a wonderful program they have founded."

The two high schoolers raised $30,000 through various corporate sponsors to provide an all-expenses-paid weekend for girls ages 13-17.

The conference theme was "Unite, Inspire, Lead," and girl-power was ever-present throughout the weekend. The girls arrived at the conference in semi-formal attire on the first evening for a "purple carpet" event, complete with flashing cameras and a receiving line that included Kaylei, Moranda and Kight.

The weekend included several guest speakers, including an Olympic gold medalist, a Hollywood image consultant and corporate executives. Workshops and break-out sessions brought girls together on issues ranging from self-esteem, self-image and career plans to boys and relationships.

The venue provided a nonthreatening environment, while the sisterly support provided teens an opportunity to reach out and share stories and get to know each other.

Many of the girls discussed their fear that something could happen to a parent in combat. Others shared the experience of attempting to console a worried mother while Dad is away, or knowing that one of their parents won't be able to see them go to prom or graduate from high school.

Kaylei plans to enlist in the Marines after graduating from high school in June, and Moranda has been accepted into the Air Force Academy. Many other girls at the conference also have plans to follow in their parents' footsteps.

"I hope that the girls come away from this knowing that the next time a deployment rolls around that they will be supported, and that they have a network ? it won't have to be the way it's always been," Moranda said on the last night of the conference.

Kaylei and Moranda said they hope other teen girls will keep the "sisterhood" alive and will call upon each other for help when they need it. They plan to go national with the organization and create chapters in other states during the next year.

Guard Daughters Hold First 'Sisterhood' Conference [ ]