By Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Michael H. Lehman Public Affairs, Navy Public Affairs Support Element – East
More than 30 Sailors, Marines and midshipmen assigned to the Harpers Ferry-class dock landing ship USS Oak Hill (LSD 51) and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) volunteered at a Foundation for Social Change’s Kreatywni Club for Young People community relations project (COMREL) during a port visit to Gdynia, Poland, July 5-7.
The volunteers renovated a play area for the children who attend the club by removing trash, broken glass and other hazards. They also built planter boxes and rabbit cages, painted the kitchen area and assembled a gazebo.
“The foundation staff doesn’t have enough time, enough people, or enough money to do all of the things the Sailors and Marines have done,” said Aleksandra Mroz-Wykusz, the coordinator for the Foundation for Social Change. “Taking care of the area and renovating is important because it’s a very poor district and this area is now much more safe and friendly for the children.”
Mroz-Wykusz said that she and many of the local businesses and neighbors were in shock that so many Sailors, Marines and midshipmen arrived to help renovate the club and multiple local citizens asked her what was happening.
“There are not a lot of talks between the youth club and the local businesses and neighbors,” said Mroz-Wykusz. “They saw the Sailors and Marines working and are very interested in who they are and why they are helping. I believe seeing them renovating and cleaning will motivate the neighbors to help and get involved themselves.”
Many volunteers agreed with her.
“I think the Sailors and Marines being here brought some publicity to the youth club,” said Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Chelsea Cowans, from Cleveland. “Hopefully the locals will be encouraged to visit the club and help clean up, or donate clothes and toys for the children.”
The neighboring community is not the only ones who had an opportunity to find the encouragement to extend a helping hand to those in need.
“The children, themselves, have been asking me why people are helping, and I think it’s an educational situation for them,” said Mroz-Wykusz. “They can take inspiration from the actions of the Sailors and Marines to get involved, volunteer themselves and also do something for the district.”
Several of the volunteers said it was a good opportunity for the children to find motivation to help other people.
“The children seeing Sailors and Marines from the Oak Hill, who are complete strangers from a different country, come into their area, put in hard work to clean their area and build new things will definitely inspire them to reach out and help other people in their community,” said Midshipman 3rd Class Sami Bang, from Annapolis, Maryland.
Similarly to Bang, Cowans said one thing the children will take away from the community relations project is seeing people from different races and backgrounds come together to help people they don’t know.
“Typically kids who come from these types of situations and background, when they get older they want to give back to the same type of community that they came from,” said Cowans. “The children seeing everything we’ve done will spur them to do the same in the future.”
In line with improving the physical appearance of the youth club, one volunteer said he hopes it will heighten the perception of the United States.
“I believe our work here will bring the children joy in knowing U.S. armed forces came out here to help them,” said Marine Cpl. Jeffrey Peterson, from Jacksonville, North Carolina. “I feel like it has made a good impact, and next time they see American military members, or an American in general, they will be more apt to be social and happy to see them.”
Peterson was one of the volunteers who built the planter boxes and rabbit cages during the COMREL.
“For me, the best aspect of this community relations project was knowing that the things we built are going to be here for a long time,” said Peterson. “They will last and not just one cycle or generation of children are going to be able to see and hear about these things. It will be a continuation of joy for the children who come in and out of this facility.”
Mroz-Wykusz said all of the members of the Foundation for Social Change are volunteers and the Sailors and Marines volunteering their time feeds into the core beliefs and mission of the foundation.
“I think there are many different impacts of the Sailors and Marines volunteering their time to the youth club,” said Mroz-Wykusz. “I want to say thank you to the Sailors, Marines and midshipmen from the Oak Hill and also the work they completed in three days is equal to the work we would accomplish on our own in three months.”
Oak Hill is deployed in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of operations conducting naval operations in support of U.S. national security interests in Europe and Africa to enhance capability and interoperability with our allies and partners in the region.
The Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group embarks the 26th MEU and includes the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7), the San Antonio-class transport dock ship USS New York (LPD 21), Oak Hill (LSD 51), Fleet Surgical Team 4 and 8, Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 28, Tactical Air Control Squadron 22, components of Naval Beach Group 2 and the embarked staff of commander, Amphibious Squadron 4.
For more information visit www.oak-hill.navy.mil