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Curacao FOL Airmen adopt home for terminally ill children

A child at the Siloam Children's Hospice in Curacao, Netherland Antilles, smiles at Airmen during playtime with volunteers Friday, Dec. 12th.  The home for orphaned, abandoned, abused and terminally ill children has captured the hearts of 429th Expeditionary Operations Squadron Airmen as they regularly volunteer to maintain the compound's grounds, paint, donate toys and their free time to provide a safe and comfortable environment for residents. (Photo by: Capt. Nathan Broshear, Twelfth Air Force (AFSOUTH) Public Affairs)

A child at the Siloam Children's Hospice in Curacao, Netherland Antilles, smiles at Airmen during playtime with volunteers Friday, Dec. 12th. The home for orphaned, abandoned, abused and terminally ill children has captured the hearts of 429th Expeditionary Operations Squadron Airmen as they regularly volunteer to maintain the compound's grounds, paint, donate toys and their free time to provide a safe and comfortable environment for residents. (Photo by: Capt. Nathan Broshear, Twelfth Air Force (AFSOUTH) Public Affairs)

Members of the 429th Expeditionary Operations Squadron pose with Brother Herman (seated) at the Siloam Children's Hospice in Curacao, Netherlands Antilles.  The team completed a series of volunteer projects at the home for orphaned, abandoned and terminally ill children during their deployments to the island.  (Photo by Capt Nathan Broshear)

Members of the 429th Expeditionary Operations Squadron pose with Brother Herman (seated) at the Siloam Children's Hospice in Curacao, Netherlands Antilles. The team completed a series of volunteer projects at the home for orphaned, abandoned and terminally ill children during their deployments to the island. (Photo by Capt Nathan Broshear)

Forward Operating Location CURACAO -- In the Bible, the Siloam is a small pool where a blind man was given sight after the clay Jesus had placed on his eyes was washed away in the restorative waters.

Today, Airmen from the 429th Expeditionary Operations Squadron at the Curacao Forward Operating Location are finding a transformation of their own at the Siloam Children's Hospice, a home for orphaned, abandoned and terminally ill children named after the biblical passage. For the past four months, dozens of Airmen have volunteered their free time to paint, landscape and provide comfort for the 13 children currently living on the small compound in the far western region of the island.

"Most of the children here are terminally ill or come from abused backgrounds," said Tech. Sgt. Michael Applegate, a quality assurance evaluator at the Curacao FOL. "It's touching to see the sacrifice of Brother Herman and his staff this facility is run entirely on donations and volunteer efforts, so we're doing what we can to give back to the island and to those most in need -- these innocent children. "

On Friday, Airmen cut back weeds and grasses at Siloam from morning until afternoon as the relentless tropical climate rewarded their efforts with sunburns and blisters. "It's hard work, but it's worth it for these children," said Sergeant Applegate.

Brother Herman Gijsbers and his wife Bep are the founder of the Siloam Children's Hospice. In 1989, he left his native Holland for the Netherlands Antilles with a vision to provide a home for any child, no questions asked. Today, he works closely with hospitals, police and local government to provide a safe and nurturing environment for abused children, those born with HIV/AIDS or addicted to drugs, and abandoned children in need of a safe haven. He receives no funding from government agencies; rather, his foundation relies on the kindness of people from around the world.

Despite his years of charitable works, Brother Herman is still amazed at the transformation visitors undergo when they meet his wards. "You can see a change in the eyes and behavior of the military men...in minutes, even the most big guys are melted," he said. "It's one thing to hear about the less fortunate, but once they come inside and experience the real love of a child in need, they are changed inside. These military men are a blessing to us."

Lt. Col. Otto Habedank, the 429th EOS commander, has seen the effect of volunteerism as each new rotation of Airmen arrives in Curacao. Their mission is to assist in counterdrug efforts in the Caribbean, but during their deployment down time, volunteer opportunities abound as the FOL Top Four and eager Airmen organize local events.

"Giving back to the community, not just focused on yourself, leads to a more fulfilling life," said Colonel Habedank. "I sometimes have to convince Airmen to do volunteer work at Siloam the first time, but after that, they usually can't wait to come back."

Staff Sgt. Terrell Smith, a chaplain's assistant from Vance Air Force Base, Okla., has been a regular volunteer at Siloam during his four month deployment to the island. Sergeant Smith described his primary mission as ensuring that the spiritual welfare of deployed Airmen is provided for, but he also feels his duty is to look after the spiritual welfare of members of the local community.

"Brother Herman and his wife started this organization from scratch," said Sergeant Smith. "Each time we come out here to paint, do yardwork, fix buildings or celebrate holidays, I feel like we're playing a part in making life better for these children."

"When we stepped out here today, the weeds were up to our chest," added Sergeant Smith as he pointed to the newly manicured grounds. "It's a small thing for us to help out, but makes a big difference for the children and to Brother Herman."

Later this month, Sergeants Smith and Applegate are organizing a Christmas celebration at Siloam. The 429th EOS has already raised more than $2000 from deployed Airmen to buy gifts and supplies.

When asked what donations he might need, Brother Herman refuses to ask for a single item. Instead, he replies humbly, "If you have the time, pray for us -- the most important gift you can give is your prayers."

For the Airmen of the 429th EOS, prayer was only the beginning.

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