By Spc. Joanna N. Amberger, 117th MPADFebruary 12, 2009
CHANTHABURI, THAILAND - Shrieks of laughter greet the formidable Hawaiian as he steps into the large, open classroom filled with small Thai children. He looks as if he wants to give all the children a bear-hug. The kids are excited and laughing, but they are shy and playfully keep their distance in a large ring around him. As he kneels down on one knee, the children finally feel more comfortable and approach the laughing, warm-hearted stranger.
Similar scenes are repeated in other schools as the Soldiers of the 230th Engineer Company, Vertical of the Hawaii Army National Guard distribute the approximate 37,000 cartons of milk to the schools and local community here in an effort known to the Soldiers as "The Milk Project."
Thirty Soldiers, along with 19 Thai marines from the Royal Thai Marine Engineer Battalion stationed out of Sattahip, Chonburi, are on a joint engineering civic assistance mission to build a new classroom facility for the Ban Nong Buatong School here Jan. 24 to Feb. 11 as part of the Cobra Gold exercise held throughout Thailand.
"The milk project is a plan to reach out to the community," said Maj. Joseph Laurel, Joint Civil Military Affairs Task Force, Humanitarian Civil Affairs, Officer in Charge, South. "We have so many resources, we want to go beyond the school and out into the surrounding province to reach out there too," he said.
"The median income in the area is very low," said Laurel. "For some of the kids in the neighboring communities, their families make less than $50 a month. They are very poor. You see kids with no shoes and drinking river water," he added. "To give them a couple of cases of milk, it's like Christmas come early. It's tremendous," he continued.
The Soldiers began by giving milk out to the children of the Ban Nong Buatong School.
"We have been giving out milk at every meal at the school," said Laurel. "When the parents come to pick up the kids, we give them a couple of cases to take home too," he added.
"The students have never had milk like this before," said Chatwoot Imchomchun, a teacher at the school. "Some students have never even had milk before because their families are poor," he said.
As the rhythm on the jobsite settled, the Soldiers and Thai Marines went to other schools in the district to share the milk with the community.
"We went to another school and gave the kids over there cases of milk," said Spc. Diamond Hoohuli of Nanakuli, Hawaii. "It felt good giving out stuff they don't have everyday," he said of the experience at the Ban Soi Song School.
"It's small, it's only a case of milk, but they appreciate it so much," said Spc. Salva Faatea of Kaneohe, Hawaii. "I liked the dancing and singing they did for us. I wish we could come back and build them a school like we are doing for the other school," he added.
The schoolchildren sang songs and danced for the Soldiers as an appreciative gesture. One Soldier joined a kindergarten class in the fun. "I was showing them shaka," said Staff Sgt. Jim Evangelista, speaking of the well-known, Hawaiian "hang loose" hand gesture.
"I was explaining that it's a friendly sign we use in Hawaii, a lot of local people use it," added Evangelista, a resident of Kahalui, Hawaii. "They tried to adjust their fingers, but they were having a hard time. I had to actually bend their fingers to show them how to do it," he said.
"It thought it was very touching," said Spc. Andrew Kalaukoa of Makaha, Hawaii.
"I have children the same age. It made me miss my kids back home," he continued. "There are a lot of kids out there in need of help. I'd like to do it again," he added.
Spc. William Cook of Hana Hawaii was on a team that delivered milk to the nearby Ban Pra Gad School. "I joined the Guard to help my community, now I'm here in Thailand and this is my community while I'm here," Cook said.
"They are really appreciative of us and what we gave," Cook said of his experience.
"I'd really love to continue doing this in anyway I can," he added.
"We've never had anyone donate milk like this before," said Thanomsri Petpaitwo, a teacher at the school. "I am so happy for your donation; thank you. We need more!" she added.
As the Soldiers prepare to depart the community that has hosted them for many weeks, they can review the many ways, both great and small, they have given back to that community. A new classroom facility has been built, swingsets have been repaired, 37,000 cartons of milk have been given out, new school supplies have been donated, a basketball court has been returned to working order, and strong friendships have been formed with the Thai marines over shared work, food and laughter.
"Beyond being a Soldier, beyond being an American or a Thai Soldier, it's the human thing to do, to give to people who have less," concluded Laurel.