By Lance Cpl. Cristina Noelia GilFebruary 16, 2009
CHIANG MAI, Thailand - As part of Exercise Cobra Gold 09, Singaporean and U.S. servicemembers came together Feb. 14 and 15 to lend a helping hand to a local children's home.
For more than ten years Nikki's Place Agape Home has housed approximately 100 children infected with HIV, giving them a place to learn and grow to prepare them for reintegration into society.
To create a safer, child-friendly, and aesthetically pleasing environment, servicemembers moved rocks from play areas, planted trees and performed other manual labor on the Agape Home grounds.
"The work we did in one day made a big difference. With the small number of staff they have on hand they wouldn't have been able to get things done so quickly," said Chaplain (Maj.) Michael T. Klein, Combined Task Force chaplain.
Maj. Gen. Patrick D. Wilson, deputy commander, U.S. Army, Pacific, was in attendance Feb. 15 joining the rest of the servicemembers in getting to know the children at the home. He also took a tour of the grounds and met the staff.
Some children enjoyed games of soccer and basketball, while others danced and cuddled up with their new friends.
"It was an awesome experience. Seeing what a big difference we made in two days really gives me a sense of pride," said Lt. Col. Richard Durost. "I have never had the chance to do something like that before and it really had an impact on me. I'd love to do it again."
The servicemembers treated the children to a special lunch from one of the children's favorite fried chicken restaurants.
"We asked them what kind of special things we could do for the children, and that's what they wanted. They said the children would love it, and they did. They had the biggest smiles on their faces. Their smiles make us smile and give an indescribable feeling," said Klein.
The servicemembers had several other gifts for the children. Singaporean Air Force Lt. Col. Lee Siang Lim presented the orphanage with a ping-pong table and other recreational gifts on behalf of his troops. Chaplain (Capt.) Douglas Weaver, Combined Task Force chaplain, presented the founder of the orphanage, Avis Rideout, with 30,000 Thai Baht (approximately 900 U.S. dollars) to fund day-to-day operations.
"It wasn't hard at all collecting money for the children. We let troops around the JTF (joint task force) and CTF (combined task force) know that we were accepting donations for the home and right on the spot they'd jump right up and gave generously," said Klein.
The event was a change of pace for those involved in Exercise Cobra Gold, which is an annual Thailand and U.S. co-sponsored joint coalition multinational military exercise designed to train a Thai, U.S. and Singaporean Coalition Task Force. Servicemembers got the chance to impact the Thai community directly.
"This is the heart and intent of Cobra Gold. We can sit around the JTF (Joint Task Force) all day and interact with our Thai counterparts, but coming together for a great organization like Agape Home is what it's all about. Actions speak louder than words," Klein said. "At the end of the day it's all about touching human beings' lives and making an amazing connection. We were all united in heart, mind and purpose for those children."