By Petty Officer 2nd Class (SW) Kevin V. Cunningham, USS Barry Public Affairs
KOJE-DO, Republic of Korea – Sailors from the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) and Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Barry (DDG 52) and USS Stethem (DDG 63), joined together in a community relations project (COMREL) at the Aikwangwon orphanage in Koje-do, an island off the coast of Chinhae, Korea, Oct. 20.
More than fifty Sailors from the three ships participated in various activities with the children during the daylong event.
The school started the day’s events with a presentation for the volunteers. In the presentation they highlighted the past military COMRELs to show gratitude for the Sailors’ time.
“Being able to give back to any community is special, but just witnessing how they appreciated all the help the Navy and various armed services have provided throughout the years meant a lot to me,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Kerri L. Lyons, from Oklahoma City.
After the presentation, the Sailors broke into two groups. One spent time with the students while the other helped with planting mushrooms, one of the many produced items the school cultivates on site.
Petty Officer 1st Class Abraham E. Jackson, from North Charleston, S.C., said despite not knowing the same language, he felt they were able to bring joy to the kids by simply spending time with them.
“What made this special for me was being able to interact with the people and see the excitement in their faces while we were there,” said Jackson. “Even though there was a language barrier, we were able to make an impact on the residents while enjoying the atmosphere of the facility.”
The two groups joined up for a traditional Korean lunch in the school cafeteria then switched activities for the afternoon with one group helping with yard work and the other taking some students for a walk off-campus.
“I saw how happy the residents were when we hiked up the mountain,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Elijah D. Stotts, from Pensacola, Fla. “It was obvious this wasn’t a normal event for them, and getting some outside exercise really seemed to lift their spirits.”
“Our residents truly feel that service members are like their brothers and sisters. They wait for service members to come and count the days as soon as they hear U.S. Navy volunteers are coming because they know in their hearts that their best buddies are coming to play with them and bring lots of smiles,” said Woojung Song, Executive Director of the Kojedo Aikwangwon facility.
When asked what surprised them most about the event, the dedication of the staff was a key topic.
“All the work that goes into keeping the center running was surprising: how they grow a lot of fresh fruits and veggies on site, the time and effort it takes in keeping everyone active, and just the patience of the staff was amazing to me,” said Lyons.
“We feel your visit is so special to reinforce our long relationship between two organizations as well as two countries. Without your help, we may not be able to continue taking care of these residents. You brought not only material help but loving hearts and courage to our Aikwangwon family to go on. You have been good friends and neighbors who continually helped us physically and spiritually,” said Song.