More than 400 Kaiserslautern Military Community volunteers contributed 2,000 hours of service at Rhine Ordnance Barracks during Operation Allies Welcome, as the 21st Theater Sustainment Command coordinated life support for more than 7,000 Afghan travelers during September and October.
At three ceremonies, held Nov. 30 at Armstrong’s Club on Vogelweh, 21st TSC Commanding General Maj. Gen. James Smith and 21st TSC Command Sgt. Maj. Sean Howard presented volunteers with certificates of appreciation, citing the breadth of services they provided and the positive impact their efforts had on travelers and mission success.
The three successive ceremonies were necessary to ensure compliance with current COVID-19 restrictions limiting gatherings to a maximum of 50 people at any one time. Rather than cancel or postpone the ceremony, 21st TSC leadership committed to “triple down” and host three separate ceremonies.
“I am humbled to stand here and publicly say thank you to each and every one of you for your outstanding role in support of Operation Allies Welcome,” said Smith.
From welcoming travelers with blankets and goody bags, to providing English language lessons, volunteers enhanced the living environment and interacted with the travelers in a myriad of ways. “More significantly, you’ve provided them hope,” read the certificates of appreciation.
Kaiserslautern Elementary School Sure Start teacher Linda Rocha-Mendoza was moved to volunteer after reading a call for help in an email.
“I never donated any clothes, but I can donate my teaching time, so I signed up,” said Rocha-Mendoza. Even with 20 years of experience teaching in Kaiserslautern, she learned something new teaching English as a second language (ESL) to the Afghan travelers. “I just jumped in and helped out. It was awesome, because I learned so much from them [the younger teachers].”
Thinking about what the children and their families had been through affected her deeply. “I went home the first two days crying,” said Rocha-Mendoza. “They had left their whole world, and they were going to something new. But kids are kids in any language, wherever they are. And they were just so excited to learn.”
Rocha-Mendoza was one of many area DODEA and local community teachers, led by Kaiserslautern Middle School ESL teacher Morgan Guinn, who volunteered in the evenings after a full day of teaching. Many said they felt more energized at 10 p.m., after volunteering, than they did at 3 p.m. after their normal workday. What began as a request for whiteboards, grew, thanks to Guinn’s initiative, into English lessons for children, and eventually into classes for adults at every LSA at Rhine Ordnance Barracks.
“Every day we just grew and grew,” said Guinn. “We were providing writing lessons, listening lessons, speaking lessons, geography lessons, American culture lessons. It was way more than just English. I think we were an amazing team,” said Guinn. “A great group of people came together at the right moment.”
Volunteers were critical in ensuring travelers had appropriate clothes and shoes for the colder German climate, as well as personal hygiene items and toys for the children.
Sylvia Sanderson, who works at HQ USAREUR Vehicle Registration, volunteered during the evenings and on weekends to solicit and distribute needed items.
“I organized clothing donations, shoes, strollers, bassinets whatever the demand was,” she said. “I reached out to the garrison at Vilseck/Grafenwöhr and Wiesbaden as well as the Kaiserslautern Military Community, and took care of the logistical part of pickup and delivery in person”
The communities were able to respond quickly to the need for specific items that may have taken longer to access through normal military procurement channels.
“I was just a tiny part of it,” she said, crediting other volunteers and community support.
As the travelers prepared for the next leg of their journey, she helped organize luggage donations so families could transport their goods. She said getting the items, including crafts, crayons and backpacks for the children, into recipients’ hands was heartwarming. She encourages others to volunteer to help people in need and make new connections.
“I’ve been a military spouse for over 34 years, have volunteered throughout the years and there is always a need for volunteers,” said Sanderson.
21st TSC Deputy Commander Col. Douglas LeVien, who welcomed the volunteers at each ceremony, said they contribute a sense of community to the 21st TSC and make the United States Army a family.
“By getting our Afghan travelers into a better place both mentally and emotionally, you accelerated their integration into American society,” said LeVien. “You made a tremendous difference in thousands of Afghan lives.”
According to the volunteers, the Afghan travelers had a similar effect on them.