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March 27, 2003 / St. Petersburg Times

Kids get boost when war pinches wallets

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
St. Petersburg Times

BRANDON -- Tina's husband has been in the Middle East since just before Valentine's Day. Yet the Brandon resident looks at her finances and considers herself and her two children "really blessed."

Her husband Daniel's military pay as a reservist with the Army's 32nd transportation unit is less than what he made at AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals in Tampa. But the company has promised to pay the difference for the next year.

Not all of the men in Daniel's unit, deployed Feb. 13, are so lucky. Some are construction workers and small-business owners whose families are left to cope with what can be a dramatic cut in household income.

For others, the pay cut is not severe, but it's just enough to put pleasures like the latest Yu-Gi-Oh cards or Bratz doll out of reach for reservists' children.

Now those families are getting a little boost. Operation Brave Kids aims to provide $25 a month for the children of reservists or National Guard members in the Tampa Bay area.

"You don't have to be for the war or against the war," said Brave Kids volunteer Jan Pawley, a Brandon resident. "This is for the kids."

Families sign up for the program and each month get a gift certificate for $25 from the store of their choice. Some families choose Target, Wal-Mart or Toys "R" Us. Others prefer Publix, Winn-Dixie or Home Depot certificates to cover the household basics.

"The $25 might not seem like a lot, but for a mother with three kids, $75 is a lot of groceries," said Doug McNamee, Daniel's colleague at AstraZeneca. McNamee established Brave Kids here last month, after learning that his cousin, John Ghee, was doing the same in South Florida.

The South Florida Brave Kids has signed up 500 children and raised $55,000 since January, Ghee said.

Families do not have to prove financial need, but Ghee said Brave Kids verifies with military officials the names and reservist status of all families who apply. And while the effort began as a way to give a sort of treat to reservists' children, Ghee said more and more parents and guardians are forgoing the toys and requesting certificates for groceries.

So far in Tampa Bay, McNamee and about two dozen volunteers have raised $10,000 and signed up 120 children -- including all 84 children of the reservists in Daniel's unit.

Tampa Bay Buccaneer Shelton Quarles and his wife, Damaris, recently decided to join Operation Brave Kids, a move likely to raise the effort's profile.

"We just want people to understand what some of these reservists go through, in terms of the financial hardships for them and their families," Quarles said. "So we'll continue to do whatever we need to do."

Ultimately, McNamee wants to sign up at least 300 children in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Polk and Pasco counties, with a commitment to provide each of them $25 a month for the next year.

"That means we'll need $90,000," said McNamee, 58, whose father was a POW during World War II. "So we need contributors -- people in Kiwanis, in Rotary, in the Legion posts."

Federal law requires companies to hold reservists' civilian jobs but does not require them to supplement the military pay. Some larger companies provide full pay to deployed reservists, or like AstraZeneca make up the difference between civilian and military salary.

Nearly 217,000 members of the reserves and National Guard had been mobilized as of Wednesday, including more than 8,000 from Florida, according to the Reserve Officers Association.

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