AFSOUTH Airmen visit Chilean orphanage
By 1st Lt. Candace Cutrufo , 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern) Public Affairs
/ Published April 09, 2008
SANTIAGO, CHILE -- Air Force participants here at the FIDAE air show, the largest event of its kind in South America, took a moment between demonstrations and displays Thursday to visit more than 30 preschool-aged children at the Koinomadelfia orphanage west of Santiago.
A brightly painted playground and basketball court at the heart of the orphanage for abused children became a stage for five musicians from the Air National Guard's Band of the Central States, who played several acoustic pieces for the attentive crowd.
"For these kids, it's an honor for the U.S. Air Force to visit because we live a very simple life and don't have many visitors to the orphanage," said Monica Hernandez, director of the Koinomadelfia orphanage. "It's a very special day for them."
The visit was one of a week-long agenda packed with events focused on the strength of interpersonal relationships. "FIDAE 2008 isn't only an opportunity to celebrate aviation and train alongside our Chilean Air Force partners," explained Col. James Russell, the director of operations at 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern). "Aircrews, maintainers and staff are stepping forward and volunteering to spend their time to meet with the people of Santiago, visiting hospitals, orphanages and other organizations. Service before self is not just a core value, it is the true character of our Airmen...at every turn I am overwhelmed with volunteers to participate in these outreach activities."
While handing out stickers, stuffed animals and patches donated by home units, the participants, from the 366th Fighter Wing at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, and 301st FW at Carswell Joint Reserve Base, Texas, became climbing posts for the preschoolers.
"I'm grateful for the opportunity to play with these children even though there is sometimes a language barrier," said Staff Sgt. Jeremy Dodd, 366th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. "I wish I would have known more Spanish, but luckily, smiles, toys and play are a universal language."
Air Force members fluent in Spanish found little need to translate as the energetic children took the opportunity to enjoy the spotlight of the Airmen's attention and the band's uplifting arrangements.
The Air Force visitors also toured the 10 casitas, or little homes, which each house eight children and a den mother, whom the children call tia, or aunt. Many of the tias have been living full time at Koinomadelfia for more than eight years.
About two years ago, one of the casitas caught fire in the middle of the night, and the den mother, Tia Carmen, led eight children to safety. She still suffers from an injury to her arm from the house fire.
"Carmen is a heroine around here," said Monica Alcalde, public affairs specialist for the US Embassy in Chile. "She is the reason all these children are safe."
The house has since been rebuilt and is the newest of the 10 casitas.
The respect and admiration felt by the visiting Airmen is mutual explained Sergeant Dodd. "It's amazing to me how much dedication the women working here at Koinomadelfia have to these kids," Sergeant Dodd said. "It's great to see they take such good care of the houses and children."
After nearly two hours of playtime, the Airmen had to say goodbye and got back to work at the FIDAE air and trade show where a total force approach is contributing to the success of FIDAE, with 16 aircraft from the active duty, ANG and AFRES participating in the massive event. Later in the week, Airmen will be exchanging expertise with Chilean Air Force members on the ground and in the air as part of and exercise named NEWEN (NEWEN stands for "force" in the native Mapucho dialect).
"This day was like a dream come true for these kids," Hernandez said. "I know it's one we'll never forget."