OLONGAPO CITY (Apr. 25) – The average high-school freshman faces more challenges than you could probably count. It can be especially demanding for military children living in a foreign country. However, ninth-graders at E.J. King High School at Fleet Activities, Sasebo, Japan, are not your average freshmen.
During the past school year, the students made a pledge to adopt the freshmen class at Barretto National High School in Olongapo City. They spent the year raising funds and collecting books to donate to the school, the beginning stages of a long-term plan to provide continuing support. The first rewards of the project came April 18 in the form of smiling faces as Sailors assigned to the forward-deployed amphibious assault ship USS Essex delivered the books during a community relations project.
“This group of ninth-graders is going to be together for the next four years and I think they can really have an impact on these students,” said Francine Locker, an E.J. King teacher who helped coordinate the effort. “We may not be able to give them a lot of expensive things, but we can help them work on their education. It’s really a great opportunity to help the kids there.”
E.J. King students managed to collect an entire crate, along with two additional boxes of books and other educational materials. They also plan to organize numerous fundraisers designed to help two of the students attend college upon graduation.
“I think we could give them a better future,” said Andrew Perez, E.J. King freshman council president. “Everybody should have an opportunity to better themselves and hopefully, if they decide to use the things we give them, they can someday find better jobs or get into a better college.”
While the students didn’t get the chance to see the impact of their efforts first-hand, the Essex Sailors who participated in the community relations project did. For one of those Sailors, the experience was personal.
“When I come out here and see these kids, I see myself,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Angelson Marquez, a native of Manila, who’s high school experience was similar to the students at Barretto. “We had one typewriter for the whole school and a library, but not many books, only newspapers and magazines. I think these books will definitely help the kids here and the kids seem very happy and thankful.”
That appreciation was evident through the excitement and curiosity of the Barretto students, as they spent the morning with more than 60 Essex Sailors, playing educational games like “hangman,” as well as a variety of sports.
“It’s really good to talk to the Sailors who came here today,” said Reprym Mendoza, a 15-year-old student at the school. “We’re glad that they could take the time out of their schedule to come here and bring everything they did and spend time at our school.”
Barretto National High School does have a variety of books in its library, but the donations will allow teachers to expand the school’s curriculum. However, the most important lesson of this project can’t be found in any math, science or English book, but rather in the experience of a long-term, cross-cultural experience, said Esterlina Bernales, Barretto National High School principal.
“I hope this experience will strengthen the relationship with foreign students,” she said. “The contact will create a wholesome exchange of ideas, and an exchange of resources will enrich the lives of students from both countries.”
Locker agreed that the most important component of the project will be the relationships forged through years of contact with students who share similar experiences under vastly different circumstances. She hopes her students will embrace those similarities and differences and become better citizens for it.
“I’d like to see our students become more civically conscientious,” said Locker. “They already see their parents going out to other countries and spreading good will throughout the world. This is an opportunity for them to personally realize what comes along with being an American. You are never too young to live up to that responsibility.”
So far, the majority of the students have accepted that responsibility with open arms. With a total of 65 students donating materials, the charity hasn’t stopped at the student level. According to Locker, many of the students’ parents, and even the school’s principal, have made significant contributions. Further donations and fundraisers will include events such as food drives, a lock-in, a “kids-fest,” and an “all-star weekend.”
“There are so many people out there that don’t really have a chance,” said Perez. “They don’t have the chance that we have as Americans and our ultimate goal is to give them that chance.”
Essex will continue to play a key role in the project throughout the next few years. The ship is an ideal choice to deliver the donations, as the ship’s annual spring and fall patrols normally include a stop in the Philippines, said Locker.
The community relations project at Barretto National High School was one of four such projects that are scheduled for Essex’ Sailors as part of exercise Balikatan 2009. Essex was invited by the Philippines to participate in BK09, an annual combined, joint-bilateral exercise involving Armed Forces of the Philippines and U.S. Military personnel as well as subject matter experts from Philippine Civil Defense Agencies. BK09 is the 25th in the series of these exercises, directed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and requested by the Philippines.
Essex is commanded by Capt. Brent Canady and is the lead ship of the only forward-deployed U.S. Amphibious Ready Group and serves as the flagship for CTF 76, the Navy’s only forward-deployed amphibious force commander. Task Force 76 is headquartered at White Beach Naval Facility, Okinawa, Japan, with a detachment in Sasebo, Japan.
Guest Columnist: Zehra Mehdi-Barlas