Military News

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

673d CEG plans Philippine school renovation

by Airman Valerie Monroy
JBER Public Affairs

1/20/2016 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- As part of exercise Balikatan 2016, personnel with the 673d Civil Engineer Group will renovate a Jaena Norte Elementary school building on the island of Panay in the Philippines.

Balikatan is Filipino for "shoulder-to-shoulder" and is an annual training exercise and humanitarian assistance engagement between the Philippines and the U.S. military. During the exercise, Philippine and U.S. service members conduct tactical-level combat training and humanitarian civic assistance projects throughout the Philippines.

"We are one of the teams working what is called 'Engineering Civic Assistance Projects' which falls under the Humanitarian and Civic Assistance portion of the exercise," said Senior Master Sgt. Jason Putt, 773d Civil Engineer Squadron operations flight superintendent.

The 673d CEG will bring a 25-man team for the renovation, said Air Force 1st Lt. Joy Johnson, 773d CES operations engineering officer in charge.  A member with the 673d Medical Group is also be assigned to the team.

"The main purpose is to work hand-in-hand with people of the Philippines and teach them our ways and learn from them as well," Johnson said.

Putt explained building relations with the host nation community and armed forces of the Philippines is one of the most important aspects of the mission.

Before the renovations can begin, site visits are needed to make the future plans.

"I have gone on two site visits," said Johnson. "I went in September and again in November; both were two weeks long."

There are two parts to the visits for preparation, continued Johnson. The first week is the site visit and the second week is a conference. Johnson explained the group flew into Manila on the first day then flew into Panay the following day.

During the visit they checked the life support available for the mission, including food, housing and safe water.

"Then we look at the school to see what's feasible and within our budget," said Johnson. "We also get a list of things that are needed."

A great way to find out the concerns or priorities of the school is to talk to the principal and staff members, Johnson explained.

"That way we can get the history of the school and see what is important to them," Johnson said.

In this particular school, the gardens surrounding the building are a significant part of their life, she said. The school maintains both flower and vegetable gardens.

"With that knowledge we [will] be careful with the flowers surrounding the school when it's time for the renovation," Johnson said.

Whether the children are keeping the garden clean or playing outside, dirt is always a factor. That's why Johnson said they have decided to make a handwashing station during their project.

"Getting to know what they need and their ways actually helps us to tailor our project to the community," Johnson said.

One big request from the students was to have a basketball court. They were willing to give up other things around the site for it, Johnson said.

"Fortunately we were able to move things around, get the basketball court and still keep everything else," Johnson said.

Johnson said she enjoys many different aspects of the trip.

"It's exciting," Johnson said. "For me it's the experience, especially the engineering experience."

Apart from learning new things, being in a different country provides many opportunities for trying unfamiliar things.

"It opens your eyes, honestly, and it's an amazing experience," Johnson said. "You completely immerse yourself in their culture and get to try their food."

Johnson explained that the principal of the school would set out a full meal for them on several occasions during the visit.

"You get to see what you like and what you don't like," Johnson said.

Two years ago, a typhoon destroyed many buildings in the area and ruined the school's roof. Because most of the school is still stable, the building will only be renovated and not rebuilt from the ground up, Johnson said.

The renovation project will begin on March 28 and be finished by April 16.

"We're just hitting the ground running," Johnson said. "And the [Armed Forces of the Philippines] will be right by our side the whole time."

Many of the students at the school are children of the armed forces of the Philippines and therefore the parents are big contributors when it comes to getting things done throughout the building.

"Everything in the school so far, the parents have done," Johnson said.

The AFP will also share all their construction equipment with the CEG personnel for the project which will cut costs.

Renovations for the school will include replacing the roof completely, painting interior and exterior walls, renovating two bathrooms, replacing the floors, and re-doing the surrounding sidewalks, Johnson explained.

The water for the school comes from a well and is pumped electronically. In an effort to reduce the electric bill for the future, gutters will be built around the entire building that will feed into the handwashing station.

One facility was destroyed beyond repair by the typhoon and will be brought down.

"We're hoping in the future, another Balikatan project can rebuild it from the ground up, but we'll just be doing the pre-work for that," Johnson said.

At the end of the project the gardens will be replanted for the children.

All the supplies for the rebuild will be bought locally which helps the local economy, Johnson said.

Johnson said she will remember this project for its experience and the new culture but also for the many friendly people she has interacted with.

"I'm even friends on Facebook with the principal," Johnson said.

673d CEG personnel are accepting donations in support of the mission up until March 4.

"We are serving a seven member facility, with 136 students and they are in need of school supplies, backpacks, sports balls [and] monetary donations for new chalkboards to enhance their education," Johnson said.

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