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Servicemembers help children in Philippines

OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM-PHILIPPINES (AFPN) -- In a desolate portion of the Philippines, at a place not easily found, U.S. servicemembers are working together to make a difference.

A group of Florida National Guardsmen, Army reservists, active-duty servicemen, and Philippine soldiers have begun to work together recently to provide civic outreach to Samal, a local village.

The nearly two dozen U.S. troops are members of Joint Task Force 510, part of Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines, headquartered at Camp Navarro, Zamboanaga, Philippines. Their mission is to train, advise and assist members of the Philippine armed forces in tactics and techniques of counterterrorism.

But for Staff Sgt. Gabriel Aviles, that is not enough. "I believe that everywhere you go, you should leave your footprint," he said. "You do that through acts of kindness."

Aviles, a Florida Air National Guardsman, is assigned to the 290th Joint Communication Support Squadron at MacDill Air Force Base. In his civilian job he is a minister for a church in Orlando, Fla.

So when he was called to active duty for the war on terrorism, he made the decision to keep ministering, whenever and however he could.

Through the support of his church, Aviles set up an organization called Operation Rescue Me to handle monetary or property donations. He approached a Philippine Army sergeant major and asked what the needs of the community were.

"I am thankful for his initiative," said Philippine Army Sgt. Maj. Rosito Tomolva. He has worked with Aviles on several outreach projects, from food collection to blood drives. Tomolva, a scout ranger, coordinated the security plan for the Samal outreach.

"I think Sergeant Aviles was sent by God to help the needy," Tomolva said. Aviles spearheaded the collection of donated clothing, toys, over-the-counter medication, hygiene products, food, and school supplies that were delivered to Samal. Churches in the United States and the families of deployed troops mailed boxes full of supplies, and the rest was collected here.

Philippine Army Sgt. Maj. June Dizon and his family helped Aviles sort the goods. They filled 100 shopping bags and then looked for a suitable delivery location.

"I suggested that this place (Samal) should be the first" to receive aid, Tomolva said. "It is one of the neediest villages."

With the help of the village captain, 100 families received tickets to exchange for a red-and-white striped bag.

The distribution took place at the Samal city hall, an open-sided pavilion at the edge of town. Shyness soon turned into curiosity as the boys and girls, inquisitive about the people in green camouflage suits, crowded against the bamboo fence that skirts the city hall.

The troops came prepared, offering lemon and cherry drops to the children. Soon there were new friendships forged on both sides of the fence.

"The greatest earthly commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself," Aviles said. "These people are our neighbors."

A smiling Senior Airman Amanda Scheriff, also a member of the 290th JCSS, handed out bags. She appreciated the opportunity to get out into the community.

"At work here on the base," Scheriff said, "I try to think about the big picture." But she admits it isn't always easy to see it amid the routine of long workdays and an austere environment. The outreach helped put things in focus for her.

"Being out there with all the children really gave purpose to why we're here," she added. "It's an awesome experience."

After the distribution of goods, the servicemembers accepted an invitation by the captain to tour the village. An estimated 300 families occupy the village whose small, decrepit houses lack both electricity and running water.

As adults watched and waved from doorways children scrambled outside into the warm sun to follow behind the visiting Americans.

As he looked around Aviles did not see a poor village. "Look at all this love!" he said. Amid friendly photo taking and handshaking, the airmen and soldiers thanked the village residents for their hospitality.

Samal is a Muslim community, and Aviles is a Christian, but he makes no distinction. "God loves us all," he said. "We're all the same." Not everyone shares his understanding, however, so one of his missions is to change minds.

He is making progress. He told afterward of a woman in Samal, who said to him, "I was wrong about you Americans. You are so kind. I didn't know that."

Along with eight members of the 290th, the U.S. Army Reserve's 426th Civil Affairs Battalion from Upland, Calif., also helped organize the event and provide security. The addition of an active-duty Army chaplain and an Air Force doctor made the event a true total-force effort. Philippine forces included civil affairs personnel and scout rangers for security.

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