By T. Anthony BellMay 8, 2013
PETERSBURG, Va. (May 9, 2013) -- -- Pvt. Giovanni Reyes and several of his uniform-clad fellow Soldiers spent at least two hours Saturday toting large bags around the grounds of Petersburg High School helping students to collect trash.
On one hand, it was his way of making amends for something he didn't do during his school years.
"I never really was able to help out when I was in high school," said the 18-year-old, "so I thought it was a good opportunity to do it now."
On the other hand, Reyes was full of the realization or at least the hope that he was doing more than just cleaning up school property.
"From the students that I've met so far, they pretty much look up to us," said the Miami native on how the students see Soldiers. "They see us as protectors and role models. I feel like when we come out into the civilian world, it's our opportunity to show them what kind of role models we can be."
Reyes was one of 12 Soldiers from Alpha Company, 832nd Ordnance Battalion, 59th Ord. Brigade, who voluntarily answered the call for community service on a chilly, overcast day to support the cleanup efforts of the school's National Honor Society. Alpha Commander Capt. Forrest R. Clay said extending an offer to help seemed the right thing to do.
"We do a lot of community engagement projects in the Colonial Heights-Chesterfield area," he said. "What I didn't want to do is neglect the community that's in our own backyard, given that Petersburg High School is so close to Fort Lee. It felt that it's our responsibility to let them know they are a part of the Army community and that we will extend our hand whenever they need help."
Aside from being a part of the big picture of being a good neighbor, Clay said Soldiers' willingness to help impresses upon students the character attributes required of those who serve and defend the nation.
"I think (students) see pride, respect, one who is willing to sacrifice their own time to give back," he said. "I also think they can see their own futures, represented by these Soldiers who are around the same age, that there is something they can achieve -- whether it's completing college or joining the military -- to make their lives and community better."
For the cleanup effort, the students and Soldiers combed most of the school property located roughly six miles away from the installation near the Dogwood Trace Golf Course. Each group went about their work in a business-like manner and exhibited behavior that suggested each was foreign to each other. That didn't matter to volunteer, Spc. Maurice Sellers, a 27-year-old college graduate and son of a Soldier.
"I like volunteering," the Florence, S.C., native said. "I volunteer a lot with my fraternity, and I love helping out communities as much as possible because I love this country. If you don't have pride in this country, you can't really have pride in yourself."
Sellers admitted that he didn't know much about the school -- only that actor Blair Underwood is a graduate and that it has had a number of challenges over the years it has worked hard to overcome. The school gained full accreditation four years ago and is currently accredited under Principal Alicia Fields. Sellers said being a good citizen is being part of efforts to make things even better.
"I just want to help," he said.
Although it had a cool start, the cleanup effort hit a high point at the close of the event. Sellers and the other students made much more of a connection to the students during a chilly cookout in an adjacent park. The Soldiers and students sat together at a picnic table, munched on hot dogs and hamburgers and shared more than a few laughs. Travon Graves, an 18-year-old Petersburg student headed to Virginia Commonwealth University, said he saw Soldiers as "ordinary people" who had a wealth of experience because of what they have to endure as members of the military.
"They've been there and seen a lot of things that we're going to go through," he said. "They are in a position to tell us, help us and guide us on our paths."
While Graves said the Soldiers gave him plenty words of wisdom and encourage, other students were just glad the Soldiers showed a genuine concern.
"I'm just inspired that they came out here and tried to help out," said student Adilene Vargas.
Fields had similar sentiments. She said it meant a lot to the students to see Soldiers support their cleanup efforts.
"To be out here on a cold Saturday morning," she said, hands tucked inside of her jacket and shoulders hunched, "and interact with our students -- it had a great impact."
Fields added that she hopes that impact isn't short-term.
"There is a lot that can be done," she said. "I was talking (to Clay) about a mentor program, having the Soldiers just coming in and sitting down with students once a month. The one thing about mentoring is providing time for young people, not to be a mother or father figure, but just to be that listening ear."
Clay, a former school teacher, said he is up for the challenge of helping students while fulfilling his personal goals of instilling in young people the value and worth of education.
"I'm not here to recruit you to join the Army," he said. "I'm here to recruit you to create a better future. I want to emphasize to these students the importance of education and how important it is to continue it."
Clay's top enlisted Soldier, 1st Sgt. Gregory Marrisette, said supporting schools ultimately helps the community to form a more complete idea of what Soldiers are all about.
"The Army isn't just about kicking in doors downrange," he said. "It's about helping and providing support to our communities. Some of these students never get to see that side so being here gives them the chance to see us in a positive light."