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Hugging Heroes

Hugging Heroes
It’s perfect for the kids. They have something they can actually physically touch for recognition

There’s no substitute for an embrace from your mom or dad, but the Red Cross Hug-a-Hero Doll program can help bring children and their deployed parents a little closer together.

To support family resiliency and help children cope with the separation of deployment, the American Red Cross of San Diego/Imperial Counties’ Service to Armed Forces recently sponsored a Hug-a-Hero Doll event for military spouses of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines and their children at Camp Pendleton.

The Red Cross imprints photos of the deployed Marine or sailor parent on a stuffed doll and then gives the doll to their child.

“It’s perfect for the kids. They have something they can actually physically touch for recognition,” said Mark Sperling, Family Readiness Officer for the Battalion. About 10 families attended the event, which Sperling organized with the Red Cross.

Eric Richardson, Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces volunteer, delivered and handed out the dolls—also known as “daddy dolls”—and provided information about Red Cross emergency messages and other services available to support military families.

There was a lot of wonder on the faces of the kids as they recognized their dads on their new dolls. There was hugging, smiles and happy exclamations to their moms who are guiding their children through the challenging months of deployment.

“It’s hard, especially on our daughter,” said Heidi Pena. “She cries every day. Distractions and friends have helped her a lot, but it doesn’t get easier. We’re Facetiming and trying to stay positive,” she said.

With deployments lasting up to seven or eight months, the dolls help maintain the parent/child connection during the long separation. They cannot replace the parent, but they remind children that their dad or mom is thinking of them and will be home soon.

“I get nervous about having to do everything by myself, not having someone to turn to,” Katrina Holleman said. “I get anxious because I can’t protect my husband or be there for him when he needs me. He worries, too.”

Despite the inevitably heightened emotions of deployment, the Hug-a-Hero program has been a success and a major comfort to the families.

“New families, with new little ones always want to know, ‘Are you getting new daddy dolls?’” said Sperling. “Over four years, our Battalion has handed out a couple hundred of them.”

The Red Cross helps members of the military, veterans and their families prepare for, cope with, and respond to the challenges of military service. Every day, the American Red Cross provides 24/7 global emergency communication services and support in military and veteran health care facilities in San Diego and Imperial Counties, across the country and around the world. The Red Cross also partners with military aid societies to help service members and their families get emergency financial service 24/7 and provides counseling, guidance, information, referral and other social services for all military personnel and their families.

Before, during and after deployments, the Red Cross provides training, information and support for military members and their families. To learn more about Service to the Armed Forces, visit