SAN ANTONIO, Zambales, Philippines -- Combined Joint Civil Military Operations Task Force (CJCMOTF) staff members joined 40 other U.S. servicemembers to visit a Philippine orphanage during a community relations (COMREL) event coordinated by the JCMOTF chaplain.
Initially designed as an event during which military members would visit some of Zambales’ displaced youths at the Shepherd of the Hills (SOTH) Children’s Foundation and lighten their spirits, to the surprise of many, it was the children who delighted the volunteers.
“Today was a total shock,” said Marine Corps 3rd Law Enforcement Battalion Lance Cpl. Juliana Gatica. “I thought the purpose of coming here would be for me to make them feel better, but each time they placed my hand on their forehead, wrapped me in a hug or laughed at nearly everything we did, my heart would melt. They cheered me up in so many ways.” Shepherd of the Hills was founded in 1976 after a typhoon displaced its first 20 children. From there, the foundation grew from a simple act of charity into a 5-acre, globally-funded foundation that provides education and support in a family environment.
According to SOTH President Nathaniel Mejica, success from the school stems from the home-like setup. The 60 children are separated into groups and cared for by an assigned mom and dad. This format inspires a strong family bond, said Mejica, and unlike most group homes, remains in place for life.
“Our children can stay as long as they like,” said Mejica. “As long as they are pursuing education or employment – something every parent wants – then we aren’t required to push them out.” Mejica says that being part of a family is crucial to the development of the children. “When you’ve been teaching these kids that family is eternal, only to push them away later, confuses them and is damaging,” added Mejica. “We don’t want that. We are a real family that has built healthy homes.” During the event, military members played basketball and other games with the children. Some members sat quietly with other children, talking and learning about each other. For JCMOTF Chaplain Lt. Cmdr. Ron Kennedy, the only required activity was keeping an open heart, the same way other military members have done in the past at the foundation. “The ties our U.S. military has with this orphanage date clear back to its beginning,” said Kennedy. “It’s a fantastic foundation that truly, truly cares about the children they take into their arms.” As the volunteers prepared to depart, each gave their day’s adopted child a hug that for Lance Cpl. Gatica, reminded her of home. “I come from a big family,” said Gatica. “Today was the only day I didn’t miss them and that last hug I got from Cherrie made me feel as though I was right there with them again.” The SOTH COMREL is one of several being coordinated by Kennedy in support of exercise Balikatan 2013.
Balikatan is an annual Republic of the Philippines–U.S. military bilateral training exercise and humanitarian assistance engagement.