First they were called to serve their country. Then they volunteered to serve their schools.
Nearly half of the 500 soldiers in Fort Gordon's Alpha Company 447th Signal Battalion have signed up for the Military & Teacher Association Program, "a rapid reaction force for the school districts," said Capt. Joe Harrison, the company commander for the headquarters and Alpha Company.
The concept for the program was developed by Brigade Commander Col. Allen Woodhouse, who wanted his troops to become more involved in the community.
"He challenged us to start surveying our company to find the strengths of some of the people around and to see if we could use some of those strengths to assist the local schools," Harrison said. "We consolidated the information to develop an organized method of reaching into the school system, so when one of the superintendents would call, we would be able to respond - like a rapid reaction force for the school district."
During a recent weekend, a team of soldiers landed at Bel Air Elementary School to help spruce up the nature trail. Since the program started, teams have helped out at North Columbia, Martinez Elementary and South Columbia Elementary schools with their carnivals.
Dave Jones, co-president of South Columbia Elementary School's PTO, said he had four soldiers volunteer at the school's fall carnival.
"They were great with the kids, they had a good time and we'd love to have them back," Jones said.
The soldiers helped run the games, such as the water cannon, and a soldier with rappelling experience helped hook participants to the rigging on the rock-climbing wall.
"Whether they help out at the school carnivals, clean-up the school grounds, chaperone on field trips or speak to a group of students, there are many ways they can impact our youth and education in our community," said Karen Ribble, the Partners in Education coordinator for Columbia County schools.
The program serves Richmond and Columbia County schools. Soldiers who are in the program can take a day off each month to volunteer and can take up to five days off for a special event. To be considered, they must undergo a rigorous screening and must submit a letter of interest, application, resume, photo, letter of reference, copy of any certifications. They also must clear a criminal background check.
Harrison said both the soldiers and the schools benefit from the program. Volunteers who don't have children enjoy being with the children and sharing the experiences and talents with them. For example, Harrison said, one of the volunteers is a trained reptile handler.
For soldiers who are parents, it provides time for them to interact with their children.
"It makes a big difference when they are deploying every other year, or are getting ready to head to another region on a short tour," Harrison said. "They appreciate every moment they can get with their family."
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