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Gunnery Sgt. Chad R. Kiehl, combat camera chief, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, spent the day volunteering with a group of children at the Rehabilitation Institute of Active Learning center in Adliya, Kingdom of Bahrain, March 14. Kiehl was one of a group of servicemembers currently deployed with USS Ashland that volunteered to interact with disabled children attending RIA, as part of a U.S. Naval Forces Central Command community relations event. Marines and Sailors the 24th MEU and USS Ashland visited the RIA center during their first liberty port in Bahrain. 24th MEU is currently on seven-month deployment aboard ships of the Nassau Amphibious Ready Group, and is serving as CENTCOM's theatre reserve force. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Alex C. Sauceda)

Photo by Sgt. Alex C. Sauceda

Marines, Sailors volunteer at special needs school during liberty port stop in Bahrain

18 Mar 2010 | Sgt. Alex Sauceda 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit

While the USS Ashland participated in a liberty port stop here recently most servicemembers deployed on ship were looking forward to enjoying the down time and tourist attractions of a foreign country. For one small group, giving back to the local community was the highlight of their visit.

Marines and Sailors of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and USS Ashland attended the Rehabilitation Institute of Active Learning center in Adliya, Bahrain, to help disabled children with developing social and fundamental motor skills.

U.S. Naval Forces Central Command coordinated the school project with the Rehabilitation Institute of Active Learning as part of the Theater Security Cooperation program, which aims to continuously improve community relations with partnered countries as U.S. forces deploy throughout the world.

“These events and projects help make a difference in children’s lives and gives an opportunity to servicemembers to do something they don’t do aboard a ship,” said Lt. Cmdr. Ron Nordan, project coordinator and deputy chaplain, CENTCOM. “The volunteers received a fresh perspective working with children, while building bridges between the military and local communities and families in Bahrain.”

RIA provides rehabilitation and education services to further develop children with autism, down-syndrome, speech delay, attention deficit disorder (ADD), and several more. RIA was founded in Bahrain more than ten years ago and functions as an inclusion center, which educates and rehabilitates children of various ages, cultures, genders and handicaps.

The school’s founder, Christine Gordon, highlights the fact that the interaction between the servicemembers and the children created a positive and therapeutic stimulation to cultivate the children’s social skills and cognitive development.

“First, most of these children who come through these doors do not receive exposure to communities other than their own and have an opportunity to experience different cultures (interacting with the U.S. sevicemembers,)” said Gordon. “Second, the children spend extra quality time with an adult, male role model. Third, the children simply have fun and become excited over something new.”

The Marines and Sailors participated in a variety of activities such as: helping children color, reading to children, teaching basic mathematics, and playing outside.

“Having the military (volunteers) here playing with kids does so much for the children and for the teachers,” said Anne Wilson, a teacher with RIA. “The extra personnel helps all the teachers keep an eye on all the children, but we can see and observe the kids learning to open up, chat, and not act as shy to new faces at the school.”

The students weren't the only ones who found the visit rewarding.

“I actually received a lot of helpful information of how to live with autistic children, especially with my nephew being autistic,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Emmanuel Brunson a logistics specialist assigned to USS Ashland, Nassau Amphibious Ready Group. “There was so much about autism that I didn’t know about before coming to the school, such as the different level of coherence in autistic children. After volunteering for this project, I came away with a better understanding of the disability and now I want to learn more and do more with autism.”

For some, the school project was a pleasant reminder of home.

“Helping out at the school made me think of my two daughters and son, who has autism, back at home,” said Gunnery Sgt. Chad R. Kiehl, combat camera chief, 24th MEU. “It was great to have a change of scenery from being around adults all the time to playing and laughing with kids on a playground. It made me feel a little closer to home.”

Most of the volunteers had little experience interacting with disabled children prior to this experience.  As they wrapped up their visit all of them felt that they had a better understanding a new-found interest in helping children in need.

“Prior to visiting the school, I did not have much interaction with disabled children,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Gregory Vargo, a logistics specialist assigned to USS Ashland. “It was great attending the school, and I can’t wait to do more with (disabled) children and continue to have a better understanding of them.”

The time spent in the classroom and playground further solidify a connection between a Bahrain community and American servicemen, while servicemembers take away a significant memory that every Marine, Sailor and child will remember.

“It was definitely a joy working one-on-one with the kids,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Tisha Lee, religious protector, USS Ashland, Nassau ARG. “Everyone walked away from the school with a smile plastered on their face. Helping the school and children will be something I will definitely cherish and remember.”