FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- Now that students are returning to school, so too, are Fort Jackson Soldiers, all to make a difference in the lives of children.

Through the installation's Adopt-A-School program, Soldiers here are offering their free time to mentor school-age children, lend them their reading skills and provide services that facilitate progress in school.

"The mission of the Adopt-a-School program is to increase public awareness of the Army's mission and to foster good relations with local communities," Keisha McCoy-Wilson, Fort Jackson's school liaison officer for Richland School District Two. "By routinely contributing to schools, Soldiers help nurture the intellectual, emotional, social and physical growth of children in the area. Through interaction with positive role models, the program helps ensure children succeed and live their dreams."

In the program, units, usually the size of a battalion or brigade, "adopt" a specific school and regularly participate in activities such as beautification projects; reading, mentoring and after-school programs; test proctoring; field trips; and guest speaking.

Soldiers with the 3rd Battalion, 34th Infantry Regiment, who adopted Caughman Road Elementary School at the start of the 2009-10 school year, created a reading program in which drill sergeants visit the school every week and read to students.

Some cadre members also repainted a mural of a map on one of the school's interior walls last year. To celebrate Veteran's Day, one of the battalion's company commanders, wearing his dress blues, spoke to the students about what Veteran's Day means to him.

As this school year begins, Capt. Larry Jackson, plans and operations officer for the battalion, plans to help launch a new project at Caughman, teaching students drill and ceremony, how to raise and take down the flag at the school, how to march - things Soldiers do, he said.

"Participating in the Adopt-A-School program is something I'm really proud of," Jackson said. "I don't look it as a job or a chore; (volunteering) is something I love and enjoy. I see it as a blessing that myself and others can do something so great as to teach and mentor children."

"It's also a way for me to give back," Jackson said.

Jackson's mother is the principal of an elementary school in North Carolina. During his deployment in 2007-08, her students sent him letters and care packages on a weekly basis. He said he and his fellow Soldiers would not only share the writings, drawings and goodies, but they would also write back to the students, answering questions and sending them photos too.
Sometimes it would get overwhelming, but we really enjoyed it," he said.

Fort Jackson units and organizations visited and provided support for more than 25 schools in Richland School Districts One and Two during the 2009-10 school year. There are schools, however, that are still waiting to be adopted, McCoy-Wilson said.

Shelia Washington, volunteer coordinator for Logan Elementary School, said she thinks Logan students would greatly benefit from a partnership like the one the 3-34th Inf. Reg. has with Caughman.

"We're a wonderful school and we'd love to be adopted," Washington said. "We welcome whatever Soldiers can do to enhance the students' educational needs, whether they become lunch buddies, just come in and read to the students, or give one-on-one mentoring. We have a vast need for having different people come in and show our students about the different types of roles they can play in the world, so that they can become good, productive citizens globally."

The school, located in downtown Columbia, currently has a civilian lunch buddy group that visits the school every Thursday. Washington said the students anxiously await their buddies' arrival every week. She said if they were able to see Soldiers in the school, they would be even more thrilled.

"To be able to see young men and women come to the school in uniform, would enhance the program so much more," Washington said. "The Soldiers, who have a vast knowledge of so many things, can enlighten them, encourage them to do better and to become really wonderful young adults. It would also give the students an opportunity to show their gratitude to those who serve our country so well."

Yvette Collins-Haili, principal of Watkins Nance Elementary, said through the program, her students have been able to establish genuine relationships with Soldiers who go beyond the call of duty to help them achieve in school.

"I have witnessed the behavior of students improve because of the presence of these mentors," Collins-Haili said. "Attendance has improved for some of my students as well."
McCoy-Wilson said she has seen the impact of the Soldiers' presence in the schools herself.

"When they see you come in wearing your uniform, and they see that you care about them, their behaviors change," said McCoy-Wilson. "On behalf of the many students that you serve...thank you for all that you've done for them. I'm very proud to be working alongside you."

For more information about the Adopt-A-School program, contact Keisha McCoy-Wilson or Ann Gordon at 751-7150.