USS PELELIU – The sounds of loud cheers, joyful screams and celebratory high-fives engulfed a small dirt schoolyard in Baucau, Timor-Leste. Two tired teams, one a group of students, the other a band of U.S. service members, stood surrounded in the festivities.
What started as a week of donations and goodwill ended in a soccer game filled with friendship and lasting memories, as Marines and sailors of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit and Peleliu Amphibious Ready Group finished their final stop of a community outreach program that began months earlier.
“We started planning in February, about eight months ago,” said Petty Officer First Class Edward S. Debaun, religious program specialist, Command Element, 15th MEU. “We contacted numerous donors, procured money, purchased sporting goods and planned the logistics with the embarkers. It took everybody to make this work.”
The Religious Ministry Team, which includes Debaun and the 15th MEU’s Chaplain, Lt. Cmdr. David D. Dinkins, finally put the plan into action when the USS Peleliu anchored off the Timorese capital of Dili, Oct. 10.
A short afternoon transit aboard a landing craft utility brought the team and volunteers ashore for the long and tiring process of organizing the thousands of donated books, school supplies, hardware tools and sporting goods. Ultimately a two-day sorting extravaganza, Marines and sailors willingly volunteered to organize items provided by non-profit organization Mr. Books, Navy-run Project Handclasp, Aviara Oaks Elementary School in Carlsbad, Calif., and money from the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Finally, on their third day in Timor-Leste, the RMT took a group of volunteers to six schools throughout Dili. Greeted by hundreds of giant smiles on hundreds of little faces, the Marines and sailors experienced the happiness a simple soccer ball or basketball brings.
“A ball in America isn’t the same,” said Sgt. Nicholas O. Troyer, data chief, Battalion Landing Team 3/5, 15th MEU, a volunteer for the community outreach group. “They are so excited and happy for the littlest things.”
And this excitement for the simplest things continued throughout the day as the volunteers traveled around Dili, taking in the sights, sounds and culture.
Each school provided a new adventure. Some children sang and danced, others rushed the Marines and sailors in fits of joy and excitement. All the students and teachers wore expressions of appreciation and sincere gratitude.
At the end of the exhausting day, the group of participants took the windy and rutted drive back through Dili to their starting point at the port. The volunteers returned to the ships at-sea while the RMT prepared and organized for the next day of donations.
As the week rushed past, the same happiness, joy and excitement met each new day’s volunteers. Five schools in Liquicia and three in Manatuto, all filled with hundreds of kids happy to see and play with American Marines and sailors.
On the final day of the community outreach program, the MEU and PELARG service members boarded a helicopter to the city of Baucau, Timor-Leste’s second largest city. Settled along the country’s northern coast, Baucau lies only 75 miles from Dili, but takes up to four hours by car due to treacherous roads and terrain.
When the team touched down, they loaded the vehicles with all of the donations like days past. Three sport utility vehicles packed to the brim with books, school supplies, hardware tools and sporting goods. The group then filled the seats and they began the bumpy trek to the final two locations.
Unlike past days though, a different experience awaited the Marines and sailors at these schools.
The first stop, situated on a small hill overlooking a green valley, contained a full-sized basketball court. And after a little negotiating through the RMT’s interpreter, the school’s director announced a basketball game over the loudspeaker.
All of the classrooms emptied and five students stepped forward to test their skills against the Americans. A half an hour later, both teams stood drenched in sweat surrounded by cheering children.
When the kids returned to class, the volunteers said their goodbyes to the school’s staff and headed to the last school in the community outreach plan.
This last school ends in the scene described in the beginning. Hundreds of children cheering the end of a friendly soccer game between America’s warfighters, Marines and sailors and the students of their local school. A moment none will forget.
“The 15th MEU and PELARG pushed the envelope with 16 [events] in four days,” said Dinkins. “Visiting 15 schools and one community center, the sailors and Marines had a fantastic opportunity to experience the warm hospitality of Timor-Leste. The books, sporting goods, tools, and meaningful interaction demonstrate our appreciation for the Timorese people and our commitment to lasting friendships around the world.”
In the end, the RMT and members of the 15th MEU and PELARG visited schools across Timor-Leste and donated hundreds of balls and Frisbees, thousands of children’s books and textbooks, hundreds of reams of paper, and thousands of writing utensils. Most importantly, the Marines and sailors experienced a new country and showed its children that a bright future lies ahead.
The community outreach program left a mark on both the children of Timor-Leste and all the U.S. service members involved. One Marine best described the feelings though.
“I’m so humbled,” said Cpl. Aysia C. Acaffle, administrative clerk, Command Element, 15th MEU. “I’m so happy.”
The 15th MEU is currently embarked as part of the Peleliu Amphibious Ready Group while they serve as the nation’s rapid response, sea-based, Marine Air Ground Task Force for Western Pacific Deployment 12-02.