DIRE DAWA, Ethiopia (April 30, 2012) -- When U.S. Army Spc. San Juanita Garcia received the "cascarrones" her family sent from back home, she knew exactly what she would do with them. Crack after crack, the confetti rained over the girls' heads as Garcia shared her "cascarrones," or Easter confetti eggs, with the young Ethiopian girls at the St. Augustine Orphanage here April 18.

Garcia, along with U.S. Army Spc. Rose Lee, Spc. Cassandra Mendoza and Spc. Tatiana Valencia, all with Troop A, Task Force Raptor, 3rd Squadron, 124th Cavalry Regiment, Texas Army National Guard, is participating in the Women's Initiative Program headed by the U.S. Army 490th Civil Affairs Battalion in support of Combined Joint Task Force -- Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA).

The program provides an outreach for Ethiopian women to discuss education, better employment techniques and other women's issues and challenges. One of the program's main efforts takes place at the local college.

"We talk to the women about sexual harassment awareness, we share job interview skills and we even have a study group for the women to work together and improve their grades," said U.S. Army Spc. Sabrina Hinterman, 490th CABN specialist. "A lot of the women attending the college come from far-away towns and villages, so they have no one here. These groups allow them to meet and study with other women just like them."

The contributions of the women from Task Force Raptor are crucial to the program, said Hinterman.

"Our civil affairs team there now is mostly an all-male unit, so it created some barriers for the Ethiopian women to open up completely," Hinterman said. "When I met the women Soldiers from Task Force Raptor, I immediately asked if they'd help out."

Task Force Raptor's main mission in Ethiopia is to provide force protection for the different CJTF-HOA tasks taking place in the country. When this opportunity came along, Garcia and the other women knew this was their call to do something else for the community.

"When I met Hinterman and heard about the initiatives she was part of, I was all over it," Garcia said. "I wanted to be part of something bigger-something to help out the women of Ethiopia."

Hinterman noticed the program had an immediate impact.

"We had 20 women attend the first study group. The very next time well over 100 women showed up," Hinterman said. "We've even had women come up to us and tell us that because of our help they have decided to stay in school."

The Women's Initiative Program partnered with other local women's groups, such as the Improving the Quality of Primary Education program and the National Women's Coalition Against HIV and AIDS, to reach even more women.

The Soldiers' hard work and the program's success have caught the eye of top Ethiopian officials, Lee said.

"We met with Dire Dawa Speaker of the House Beftu Mohammed to discuss more ways to reach women here," Lee said. "She is very inspirational. To see a woman in that position here gives us even more confidence to continue with our outreach."

The 490th CABN and Task Force Raptor are also involved in book donation programs, women's gender equality discussion groups, English conversation groups and local orphanage visits.

"When we visit the orphans, we break off into groups according to age," said Lee. "I'm paired with the younger girls. I help teach English and play games with them that I grew up with, like 'duck, duck, goose.'"

Garcia and the women of Task Force Raptor discovered that they can learn just as much from the girls as they are trying to teach.

"As Easter approached, I was interested to learn how they celebrated at the orphanage," Garcia said. "They told me that they go to church on Good Friday, and on Sunday they dress up, eat and have a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. I asked if I could be part of the celebration and share a tradition from back home. So I had my mom send me the 'cascarrones.' It was good to not only share my culture, but learn some of theirs as well while having fun at the same time."

The Soldiers who took part in the Women's Initiative Program believe it's the simple act of reaching out to the Ethiopian women that makes it a success.

"The small things that we have already done and the list of things that we plan on doing is having a bigger impact then we ever imagined," Garcia said. "To the women here it is the little things that matter, so just spending time with them makes a big difference. It's a great feeling knowing that I am a part of this."

Page last updated Tue May 15th, 2012 at 10:17