ZAMA, Japan — As the Soldiers, clutching bags of gifts, walked into a children’s home near Camp Zama Wednesday, the sound of excitement could be heard by children who had been patiently waiting for them.
Wearing a Santa hat and festive shirt, 1st Sgt. Stephen Graves proceeded to hand out the first present inside the Seikou Gakuen home. When one of the children began to tear open the snowman-themed wrapping paper, a boy standing nearby let out a cheerful shriek as he saw a Nintendo Switch video game console come into view.
The joy, which was reminiscent to how many American children feel on Christmas morning, continued as a handful of children opened nearly two dozen gifts that also included video games, movies and J-pop music, as well as loads of candy to be shared with the 40 children at the home.
"When they opened each gift, just the pure joy and excitement of them telling the other kids what they got and seeing them all light up – that right there showed everybody in the room why we do it,” said Graves, a member of the U.S. Army Japan Sergeant Audie Murphy Club.
Members of the SAMC sponsored the event, which had donated gifts from the Camp Zama community, as part of an outreach effort with the children’s home that Graves hopes to expand.
“I wish we could have done more with all of them,” said Graves, the first sergeant for Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 38th Air Defense Artillery Brigade. “I wish we could have done a Christmas meal or something like that. But I know during COVID times, it's difficult.”
The Camp Zama community has assisted the children’s home, which currently have youth aged from 6 to 18 years old, for about two decades. Zama Middle High School had also previously invited younger children to the school for holiday parties.
“It is important for the children’s home to have a close connection with the local community,” said Yukie Ogasawara, who serves as a childcare worker there. “I think it is wonderful to be able to interact with people from Camp Zama since we are living in a same area.”
Command Sgt. Maj. David A. Rio, senior enlisted leader of U.S. Army Garrison Japan, helped Graves and two other Soldiers, 1st Sgt. Alfrelina Wynn and Staff Sgt. Justine Saenz, hand out the gifts.
“It warms the depths of your heart,” Rio said. “Before we even walked in, they were all so excited. That was pretty fun.”
Rio said community engagements, like this one, allow Soldiers to meet with and support community members outside the installation.
“We, as the U.S. Army, are part of the larger community,” he said, “so these engagements are really important to show that.”
Graves agreed and said supporting those in need is also part of being a member of a community.
“I think that it's important to remember that they are human beings just like us,” he said. “Whether you're Japanese or an American, you’re still a human being."