Following their second visit to a camp devoted for children of fallen soldiers, Alexis (14), Starr (13) and Kylee (9) Dampier got more than they bargained for during a trip to Milwaukee in September.
The girls’ father, U.S Army Private First Class Grant Dampier of Merrill, was killed in action in Ballad, Iraq on May 15, 2006.
As can be expected, losing a loved one in such a manner can carry its share of issues for children to face. That is where Camp Hometown Heroes comes in.
Camp Hometown Heroes, located in Grafton, Wis., is a free, national week-long overnight summer camp, for children and siblings between the ages of seven to seventeen, of fallen U.S. service members who died in any manner: combat, accident, illness or suicide.
During their visit to camp, perhaps for the first time in their young lives, the children have the opportunity to openly discuss their feelings and experiences. Through the support of pediatric grief specialists the children partake in art and music therapy programs and optional discussion groups. The children are afforded the opportunity to enjoy typical summer camp activities such as swimming, dance, arts and crafts, archery, drama, canoeing, fishing, climbing and more. But more importantly, the children are given many opportunities to begin or continue the healing process.
“Camp Hometown Heroes opened in 2013 and a documentary was also made about the camp,” explains the girls’ mother, Heidi. “When I picked them up from camp this past June, camp co-founder Neil Willenson approached me about doing some sort of promotional event with the girls about camp.”
Heidi explains further, “He didn’t give me much for details, but I thought anything to help the camp was a great idea. I knew it had something to do with someone famous, but I didn’t know who exactly. I kept e-mail correspondence with the producer, and the day we arrived in Milwaukee as scheduled, I found out it was going to be a commercial with Aaron Rodgers!
“The commercial was made as part of a camp fundraiser to help bring more children to camp. As of the last camp held in June, they had flown in children from 22 different states. They want to increase that number, and have a fund raiser goal of $250,000,” Heidi adds.
“My girls love it there,” she said. “They rent out a YMCA camp and the kids spend a week doing various team building and therapeutic exercises. They have been there both years now and every year they can’t wait to go back the next year.”
“We do all kinds of fun stuff,” explains 9-year-old Kylee.
“They get pretty creative, like doing activities where we get shaving cream and flour in the face, swimming parties and crawling through a hoop covered in chocolate,” adds Starr. “It’s all a lot of fun.”
On the day of the surprise drop in from the two-time NFL MVP, Heidi had just learned of the surprise prior to his arrival, but the girls were absolutely clueless.
“I led them to believe it was a follow-up for the documentary about camp,” Heidi adds with a smile. “I wanted them to be really surprised.” When Rodgers arrived, mom’s mission was accomplished, perhaps more so than she expected.
“Alexis was really the only one who knew who he was. Dylan was another camper who was with the girls that day, and he recognized Aaron right away. He got pretty excited then Kylee started laughing and yelling, asking who he was,” Heidi explains with a chuckle.
“I knew who he was, but I am not really into football so I wasn’t sure what to say or do,” Alexis adds. “I guess I was kind of in shock at first.”
Kylee and Starr agree the 6’2” quarterback looked familiar, but didn’t really recognize him until he introduced himself.
“I only seen the side of his face, so I wasn’t sure,” Kylee adds, “but when he took off his sunglasses and Dylan started freaking out, then I recognized him! He is so cute!”
While Heidi, her fiancée Eric and Dylan’s mom remained out of sight in the background of a yacht, Aaron and the four kids set out on a four-hour yacht ride on Lake Michigan.
“It was pretty relaxing,” Starr explains. “We hung out and talked about all kinds of things, like what we want to do when we get older and what the future holds. Kylee told him she wants to be an actor or director, and explained about different movies she has made with her Barbies. Aaron was pretty interested and kept asking her what happens next, it was super cute.”
“Each of us got a turn to drive the boat and then we even fished for a little while,” Alexis adds. “I joked to mom afterward that if we were fishing, it would have been funny to have someone from the production team tossing fish in the water for us!” she adds with a laugh.
“That definitely would have helped them catch something,” Heidi agrees with a smile.
“He complemented me on the dress I was wearing!” Kylee chirps and giggles. “He was cute, sweet and a gentleman. I want to definitely meet him again!”
Despite the presence of cameras and various people, the girls insist the encounter was very genuine.
“We never talked about him or football, except for when he introduced himself,” Alexis states. “He was interested in learning about us and camp. He wanted to know our likes, dislikes and so on. He is just a very relaxing, polite guy. He is so laid back and is very dedicated to helping raise money to help bring more kids to camp.”
As Heidi comically explains, Kylee’s mention of her “Barbie” stories ultimately led to a top secret communication method between the girls and family members.
The commercial was filmed in September, but it wasn’t released until last Wednesday (Jan. 28). The girls weren’t allowed to talk about it to anyone, until it was released. So that whole time, if they wanted to talk about it or refer to it around anyone, they used the code name “Barbie.”
In addition to the experience of meeting and hanging out with a professional sports icon, the girls also took away from the experience autographed Green Bay Packers footballs.
The encounter has attracted the attention of media outlets near and far, including local newspapers and television as well as CNN and TMZ. In turn, that translates to attention for the Dampier girls. As they explain, each received and viewed the attention in their own ways.
“A few of my friends and teachers made a big deal about it,” Alexis states. “But I don’t really like attention like that. I went through that in a way when I lost my dad, so I just try to avoid it.”
“My friends and teachers acted the same way,” Starr adds with a smile. “The attention is OK, it doesn’t really bother me or get to me.”
“One of my friends said she was so jealous of me!” Kylee says with a big smile and a giggle.
“She said I was sooo lucky and my teacher wanted to show the video to the class!”
Although the family lived in Merrill at the time of Grant’s death, Heidi and the girls have since moved to Weston.