MCAS BEAUFORT, SC -- -- Marines from commands across the Air Station recently topped their volunteer efforts at Beaufort County schools by donating toys to children who might otherwise not receive them.
"They came over with several carloads of toys," said Beverly McIntyre, Lady's Island Elementary school counselor. "We had identified about 25 children who could benefit from a donation, but we got a lot more than we'd anticipated. The generosity of the Marines was really impressive."
Adopt-a-School is a Department of Defense-sponsored volunteer reading program that pairs military units with area elementary schools. The program is designed to help school children improve their literacy, while encouraging stronger bonds between service members and the local community.
With several of the Air Station's larger units now partnered with schools in reading programs, donations this holiday season added up to a lot of toys for local children.
According to Whale Branch Elementary School Principal Cheryl Fuller, her school anticipates great things from their recent partnership with Combat Service Support Detachment 23.
"We're at a really exciting time because we were just adopted by them (CSSD-23)," said Fuller. "We've heard really good things about the Marine volunteers and their work reading with the children at other schools, so we were glad to be able to participate. They toys are an added bonus."
According to Fuller, the CSSD Marines may have set the mark to beat for holiday volunteer spirit among Air station units.
"That's a toy for every child declared free or reduced lunch - that's about 400 children here," said Fuller. "That's a very impressive beginning."
While toy donations once a year are appreciated by the schools, Marine volunteers in local area reading programs embody the Christmas spirit of giving year-round.
"You can't say enough about the Marines who give of their time to make these reading programs happen through out the year," said Col. J.Bruce Hulick, Air Station commanding officer. "It's vital for Marines and Sailors to be a part of the community. I think it's our responsibility and one of the reasons we have the best military-community relationship in the country.
"With frequent rotations and all the amenities available here on station, it's easy to stay within the perimeter," Hulick added. "Programs like Adopt-A-School give us a precious opportunity to become involved in the local area community and to make a positive difference in the education of our youth while establishing good community relations."
Units such as Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 31 and Marine Wing Support Squadron 273 are veterans of the program. The Stingers had more than 100 volunteers participate in last year's program with Shanklin Elementary while the 'Sweathogs,' past winners of Marine Corps-wide community service awards, are now in their third year in partnership with St. Helena Elementary School.
The Air Station's Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron is also in its third year partnered with Lady's Island Elementary.
"We have the enthusiastic support of the command and the shops within the squadron have been pretty good about letting people come out," said GySgt. Joseph Bolton, H&HS squadron gunnery sergeant. "The Marines who have come out tend to continue to want to go out. It's getting the word out to the young Marines that is the toughest part. Volunteer reading may not always seem like the most fun you can have when you're young, but the Marines who make it out there the first time tend to come back for more. It's rewarding and you get stuck on it."
Following the success of the reading program, Bolton hopes to expand the squadron's role at the school.
"Our goal this year was to try to do something in addition to the reading program, such as the toy donation and perhaps a field trip on the station down the road," Bolton added.
Plans by program organizers are successful only as long as there are Marines willing to selflessly give of there own time to patiently work with children who need help.
One such volunteer, LCpl. Wann Lok, Disbursing clerk, is in her second year reading with children at Lady's Island elementary.
"When my gunny asked for volunteers for the program last year, I volunteered like everyone else," said Lok. "We have pretty good turnout for volunteers at our shop. I like helping people and I thought this was an opportunity to do that.
"When I got there I was a little nervous at first. But we warmed up to each other and it turned out to be really rewarding," Lok added. "People ought to know it's fun and rewarding. The kids can be so grateful and with them everything is so simple.
They take joy in everything they do, every correct word they learn to pronounce. as an adult, it's not that simple anymore. Sharing in their joy when they have success -I find that to be really rewarding and it also gives me a chance to improve myself when I realize that someone's education depends a little bit on me."
"There's a lot to be said for exposing these kids to people other than their parents and teachers, too," said GySgt. Michael Diggs, Marine Air Control Squadron 2. "It gives them a new perspective on life. When they realize that we Marines want to give up our time to come out here and help, it sends a message that learning is something important -- and that's important to me.'"
According to McIntyre, Marine volunteers aren't just helping make better readers, they are making new friends of Lady's Island students.
"Our children collectively have improved in their reading," said McIntyre. "The efforts of the Marines with our more challenged readers has been wonderful and has helped the children improve. At this it's become personal. Some of the children ask for Marines by name. On Wednesdays when they come the children will say, 'The Marines are coming, The Marines are coming.' At Lady's Island elementary we consider the Headquarters Squadron Marines our Marines. "
Volunteering time can be a way of repaying old debts, as well as seeking to do something positive for children.
"At some point all of us have had somebody other than family who took time out to help us when we were kids," said Air Station SgtMaj. Carl Smith. "Things like that help make us who we are and it's a debt that can only be paid back by passing on the deed.'"
To get involved with the Adopt-a-School program, units can order free materials from the Department of Education by calling 1-800-USA-LEARN. To join an already established program, contact your unit command.