Soldiers share time with children

By Abby Morris
Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com

   FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. -- While many soldiers in the United States Armed Forces are in various corners of the world defending the freedoms of those on the homefront, some members of the 776th Maintenance Company are spending time getting in touch with one of the reasons their counterparts are stepping onto the front lines.
   In the spirit of the volunteer state and in the true meaning of giving, fifteen soldiers from the 776th Maintenance Company recently stepped forward and volunteered to participate in a summer day camp program for children with special needs.
   The "Exceptional Family Member Program," sponsored by the Fort Campbell family services program, is aimed at helping children who have physical and mental disabilities.
   The soldiers underwent special training to prepare them to be mentors to their assigned child. Training activities ranged from learning basic first aid, water and swimming safety, comprehending games and art activities, to understanding the developmental social skills of the children. "There was four days of training for the mentors prior to the camp," said Spc. Rick Gabriel of the 776th.
   Gabriel said that getting to watch his comrades interact with the children was an enjoyable experience.
   "I was allowed to observe the interaction between the mentors and the children, and for several days, I saw a special side of the mentors not seen in uniform," Gabriel said. "The dedication and caring they showed was one of selfless giving."
   The volunteer mentors spent their time with children during the two week camp doing a wide variety of activities. "Mentors such as Spc. Zsa Thompson could be seen changing a diaper or two, and mentors Spc. Rusty Russell, Spc. Patrick Smith and Sgt. Rhonda Long could be seen in the video room watching learning shows with their children," Gabriel said. "Sgt. Chris Davis, Sgt. Donovan Deakins and Sgt. Roger Wedding assisted in making art work with children that had special needs."
   Gabriel said he saw how much the adults returned to their own childhood and experiences when interacting with the children.
   The experience was also an enlightening one, according to Gabriel. "It was always a giving -- a constant giving. There was an innocence there which sometimes in today's world is long lost," Gabriel said. "I saw a caring side to them. I saw a side of them that I don't think they realize that others see.
   "You see what things should be like, the giving and the caring."
   At the same time that the experience exposed a different side of these special volunteers to their fellow soldiers, it was also a reminder of more somber realities, Gabriel said. "It was kind of an odd thing to see, at times, in that, while that was going on with the children, people are dying on the other side of the world," Gabriel said. "Here is someone trying to give and be caring, and, at the same time, around the world, someone else is having their life taken from them.
   "It's sort of the paradox of the world, that it is harder to give than it is to take."
   At the end of the two week camp, a special presentation was held for the children, and the following week on July 31, a presentation was held for their mentors.
   Members of the 776th Maintenance Company who participated in the program are: Capt. Larry Northcutt, Spc. Samantha McKeehan, Sgt. Victor Lagoa, Sgt. Chris Davis, Spc. Zsa Thompson, Sgt. Donovan Deakins, Spc. Patrick Smith, Sgt. Rhonda Long, Spc. Ronald Dameron, Sgt. Joseph Garland, Sgt. Roger Wedding, Sgt. Stephen Harris, Sgt. Jennifer Groomes, Spc. Rusty Russell and Spc. Billy McCandless.