April 7, 2017
By Judy McSpadden
Many children use their grants from Our Military Kids to try something new. Alex, for example, is an OMK grant recipient, who began fencing to feel closer to his deployed father, who had fenced as a teenager. Sammy, the daughter of a National Guard pilot, took up surfing for similar reasons. Remarkably, today, she is a contender in the 2020 Olympics in Japan. Neither Alex nor Sammy had tried their sports before their fathers deployed.
Mariel Mitton, however, is a different story. Her dad, an Army reservist, deployed to Kuwait when she was in high school. Although her three younger siblings weren’t sure what grant activities to try, Mariel had no doubt. Committed to ballet since she was 10, she would continue doing what she loved most.
“I remember when my dad deployed,” she said, “and my mom told us we had been given grant money to pursue something we needed. Dance had been my life – I can’t not dance. It’s that important. But it’s also expensive, and having that grant money made a big difference.”
As many military families know all too well, deployment times can feel like a roller coaster ride. Emotions soar when the skype call comes from overseas. Then they plummet when a child gets sick and his mom is exhausted. When her dad deployed, Mariel was sad to see him go, but thrilled she had the chance to continue her rigorous ballet training. As the roller coaster goes, however, Mariel’s high spirits took a dive during her senior year; she tore her ACL — one of the four main ligaments in the knee – while dancing in ballet class.
“I thought the world was ending,” she said. Philosophically, she added, “But I found that those challenges always happen for a reason; you get stronger from them.”
Since Mariel’s dad was deployed at the time of her injury, he was on active-duty status and eligible for military medical insurance that could pay for her treatment. Mariel was able to heal. She slowly built herself up, attending a university close to her home in North Augusta, South Carolina. While she was rehabilitating, she began teaching ballroom dance at a local studio. There, she met Chris, the man whom she plans to marry in just a few weeks.
“At the time, Chris needed to learn how to dance for a wedding, and I needed students,” she said. “I didn’t tell him this, but he was my first student. That was seven years ago.”
Once married, she and Chris will live in Tennessee, where she is determined to continue to dance, either as part of a dance company or as an instructor.
“I love what the arts do for people. Dance is such a mental and physical challenge; for me, it’s where I feel most alive. But it’s a hard and competitive field. You have to be strong enough to build yourself up because no one else will do it,” she said.
Looking back at her life, Mariel compares herself to her cousins, whose dad is an active duty military member. “Compared to my cousins, I didn’t really feel like a military kid, which is why I felt honored to be given the OMK grant. I thought, ‘Wow, people are grateful for what we’re doing!’ It was cool.”
As to Mariel’s future, “I think, like with military life, you can only see so far ahead with dance, but I do know, wherever I go, dancing will be a core part of my life.”