FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas -- The second-grade students clapped and cheered for the 20 Fort Sam Houston Soldiers as they entered the William Paschall Elementary School cafeteria in an unplanned and rousing standing ovation.
"I was fighting back tears. It was the most emotional thing I've ever experienced. It was so unexpected," said Spc. Rachel Moore, a health care specialist with Family Medicine at Brooke Army Medical Center, who volunteered to mentor a student.
"They felt like rock stars," said Staff Sgt. Edmund Perez, installation Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers president for Fort Sam Houston, who accompanied the group to the school as part of a newly-organized program for students and Soldiers.
"It was really touching for the Soldiers," said Principal Jayanna Kelly. "The respect the students have for what Soldiers do for our nation was evident."
"BOSS was asked to start a mentorship program where Soldiers befriend and mentor students who have been selected by the administration and staff at Paschall," Perez said.
The group went to the school for the first of a series of meetings between students and Soldiers.
Soldiers first met with Kelly, who described the premise behind and expectations for the program.
According to Kelly, 76 percent of the students come from low-income households and many live in single-parent homes. Students were selected based on academic or emotional need and may be the oldest, responsible for taking care of younger brothers and sisters.
"These children need someone to encourage, motivate and care about them. Some of the children may have difficulties with school work and find it hard to persevere when learning does not come easily to them," Kelly said.
"They see somebody who serves something greater than themselves and somebody who has aspirations for something better," said Capt. Stephen Hernandez, an attorney with the Fort Sam Houston Judge Advocate General's office.
"It's a good opportunity to show kids they can do well in life. Mentors bring different experiences to the table for the kids," Moore said. She has met with her student three times during which they spend time in the library taking turns reading aloud and acting out a character in the story.
"I didn't realize how much I would enjoy spending time with (my student). He already knows that he wants to go to college and specialize in computer science. Then he wants to join the Army," said Sgt. Tia Leas, a supply sergeant with the Special Troops Battalion, U.S. Army South.
"The first meeting was hugely successful," Kelly said. "One of the students paired with a Soldier normally doesn't smile, hardly talks and seems to be a bit depressed, but couldn't stop talking, smiling and seemed to be enjoying herself very much."
Perez said the BOSS Program and Paschall Elementary are still looking for a few Soldiers who want to make a difference in the lives of children.