Stories worth telling

Photo courtesy of Debbie Fink

Stories worth telling: Student and her mother write book for children of military families

By Jenny Hottle
Staff writer
Monday, Nov. 19, 2012

Originally published on

It all started with an observation by the 5-year-old daughter of a triple-amputee war veteran.

Jennifer Fink, a junior behavioral and community health major, worked with the girl’s family during the summer of 2011 as a volunteer at Operation Homefront — an organization that provides emergency housing and aid to wounded military service members and their families. One day while she and the girl were checking in on the other families, they saw a quadruple amputee and his girlfriend come out from their room.

“We’re so lucky,” Fink recalled the girl saying, “because my daddy still has an arm.”

And that’s when the idea first struck Fink — her mother, who had just finished writing a book for children of cancer patients, should write a story about military children.

More than a year later, Fink and her mother, Debbie, published The Little CHAMPS: Child Heroes Attached to Military Personnel, a children’s book that follows five military children who met on a military base, each of whom represent the five branches of the U.S. military. So far, they have donated 7,000 books to children of military families around the world — “a drop in the bucket” of the more than 600,000 elementary school-aged children they hope to reach, Debbie Fink said.

“It had to both acknowledge and validate the children’s military-connected challenges as well as honor and sacrifice the challenges that they are making for our nation,” Debbie Fink said of the book. She and her daughter also hope the book will educate military children’s civilian peers on military life.

To reach as many children as possible, Jennifer Fink launched a fundraising campaign — or CHAMPaign, as she calls it — through Operation CHAMPS, a new organization she created to engage college students and other civilians in giving back to military veterans.

“We are determined, as crazy as we are, to make sure that this book and its story reaches every heart and soul of those 600,000 Champs,” Debbie Fink said.

Debbie Fink said she still remembers the day her daughter burst into her office with the idea for the book.

“She comes through the front door, slams it behind her and says to me, ‘Mom, whatever book and project you’re working on, it’s going on the back burner,” she said. “I said, ‘Fine, absolutely. But I’ll only do it if you write it with me.’”

Jennifer Fink was hesitant at first, but eventually agreed to collaborate with her mother and bring her numerous volunteer experiences with military organizations to the project.

“Every experience I’ve ever had working with wounded warriors, their families — it’s in this book,” Fink said. “It’s my heart, it’s my soul, and it wouldn’t have happened without her pushing me.”

The Finks originally named the book The Little Brats, based on the age-old term “military brats” for children who grew up in military families. However, the title did not go over well with some military organizations with which the authors hoped to collaborate.

Finally, the authors decided upon the acronym CHAMPS — Child Heroes Attached to Military Personnel. The change won the support of the organizations as well as the first military children who read the book.

“After a year of somehow collaborating, we had a book,” Debbie Fink said. “But the most important part of the book, which everyone needs to know, is the only reason we got it right was because it was a community effort. We just had the creativity and passion and the child psychology between [Jennifer’s] experience and my experience with the kids.”

The Finks sent out a prototype of the book to members of every military branch, as well as psychologists, psychiatrists and other military-affiliated organizations to get feedback and fine-tune their story. The next step was getting an illustrator, who ended up being their neighbor Walter Blackwell, a U.S. Navy veteran.

The process of writing The Little CHAMPS led to a “huge shift” in the authors’ mother-daughter relationship, and the two plan to work together again on the story’s planned sequels, Debbie Fink said.

Jen Fink even wrote a song inspired by the book as a birthday present to her mother. “The Little CHAMPS’ Song” ended up catching on with the children on some military bases. The lead singer on the song’s track is an 11-year-old girl whose father builds houses for military families.

“The most amazing moment through the whole process was listening to these kids sing the song and seeing them so excited with this book,” Fink said. “That was the most gratifying, but we only did this because it needed to be done.”

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