COLUMBUS, Ga. -- Soldiers from Fort Benning cut down dead trees, cleared low-hanging foliage, tore up and dragged away brush, sanded and stained a gazebo, and did more in support of a group home for girls Aug. 31 in north Columbus, Georgia.

More than 120 officer candidates of Class 503-19 with the U.S. Army Officer Candidate School volunteered on the 15-acre grounds of the Anne Elizabeth Shepherd Home, the staff of which provides residential care to girls and young women ages 7 to 18 with severe emotional or behavioral disturbances.

The Officer Candidate School (OCS) trains enlisted Soldiers who have at least a bachelor's degree over a 12-week course to commission them as second lieutenants in the U.S. Army. As part of their training, they must organize and complete a service project. D Company, 3rd Battalion, 11th Infantry Regiment, is in charge of Class 503-19.

"Each OCS class is afforded the opportunity to conduct a volunteer project," said Capt. Travis Thompson, commander of D Company. "It's about us serving our community. Part of Officer Candidate School is selfless service."

With 128 candidates working over an eight-hour period, minus requisite breaks during a humid, summer day in Georgia, Thompson estimated they were providing 700 to 800 total labor hours, "which is a huge impact for a small organization like the Shepherd House," he said.

Cheri Cody is the executive director of Twin Cedars Youth and Family Services, Inc., a network of support services to which the Anne Elizabeth Shepherd House belongs. Currently 35 girls reside at the home.

"All of our programs are here to empower," said Cody. "For here, it's to empower girls and their families, to achieve their optimum potential. We want them to be the best they can be."

Residents typically stay at the home a year, before they are ready to move into a less restrictive environment, whether that is a foster home, back to their own families, or, if they are old enough, to college.

"The girls, when they come here - most of them when they come here, have had a really rough time in their lives," said Cody. "So they need a place to pull things back together and get back on track."

The 15-acre property is just that. Next to the housing area is a tennis court and community garden. There is a pond for kayaking and fishing. A ropes course runs through the woods at the housing area's edges down to the pond so the girls can take part in team- and confidence-building exercises. There is a gazebo close to the pond.

The officer candidates over the course of the Saturday landscaped the woods through which the ropes course runs. They cleaned up the community garden and affixed decorative wooden butterflies to its fence. They installed picnic tables donated or discounted by businesses in the Columbus area. They installed a new boat dock and new life buoys by the lake. They power-washed some of the buildings. They replanted the small plot surrounding the Shepherd House's entrance sign.

Candidate Carly Schroeder was the volunteer coordinator for the class. She said her group determined the scope of work not just by the needs of the facility but by the interests of the girls who called the Shepherd House home.

"Any one of these single projects is something that would give a little quality improvement for the females who occupy the campus here," she said. "Each one of the girls has a different hobby, a different interest. We have the birdwatchers; they're putting more stuff in by the gazebo so we can bring in more birds. We have the girls who like to go fishing, so we're putting in a new dock. We have the girls who like to garden; we're kind of tailoring it to what these girls enjoy."

Schroeder further emphasized that the betterment of the community of Columbus, Georgia, is the betterment of the candidates' community.

"We're not all from Georgia, but it feels like home," said Schroeder. "This is where we go to OCS, this is where our base is. And to be able to contribute to our community makes a difference."

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