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American Airmen travels to Africa
U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Jessica Tharp, 18th Component Maintenance Squadron aerospace propulsion journeyman, poses with a mask on Kadena Air Base, Japan, Nov. 30, 2012. The mask was a souvenir Tharp brought back from her trip to the Central African Republic where she and her uncle helped build and repair wells for the villagers. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Malia Jenkins)
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American Airman travels to Africa

Posted 12/6/2012   Updated 12/6/2012 Email story   Print story


by Airman 1st Class Malia Jenkins
18th Wing Public Affairs

12/6/2012 - KADENA AIR BASE, Japan  -- Leave is something military members typically earn, with hard work, dedication and long hours. Those members usually use their precious time off to recharge their batteries and relax, not Airman 1st Class Jessica Tharp.

Tharp, an aerospace propulsion journeyman assigned to the 18th Component Maintenance Squadron at Kadena Air Base, traveled to Central African Republic with her uncle and her cousin determined to make a difference.

Although this was Tharp's first journey to the Dark Continent to join the humanitarian mission, her uncle, Tim Harley from Wooster, Ohio, started visiting the country nine years ago. The trip would prove to be an eye-opening experience.

"For the first time, I got to see how other people outside of the (United States) and military live," she explained. "Their lives are so much different (than ours) and their mentality (regarding) their day-to-day life and priorities are completely different than what we could imagine."

What started out as a simple question to her uncle "Could I go with you one time?" quickly turned into the biggest adventure of a lifetime.

While she didn't have the skills or experience to dig wells or build houses, she struggled with how best to help the villagers of Bangui. Nevertheless, Tharp was determined to make an impact.

When she arrived in the Central African Republic, from the two-day long plane ride to Bangui, with her family and two other members from the Integrated Community Development International organization, blue skies and cool breezes greeted her.

"It was better than what we were experiencing in Okinawa at the time," said Tharp with a vibrant smile. She added that she was glad they went in July instead of during the dry season where temperatures typically reach upwards of 135 degrees.

There was little time to settle in before the members of the organization jumped in with both feet. They began to train the Africans in maintenance, farming, construction and well drilling.

Overall, more than 100 Africans were taught how to build wells for providing water to the multiple villages throughout the countryside.

Tharp was able to assist by drawing from her own life experiences. Having grown up on a farm in Lancaster, Ohio, she was able to show the villagers how to clear fields so they could grow food for their families. She was also able to share some of the skills she learned while serving in the military, tool organization, accountability and care.

"Helping to teach the Africans definitely tied into my core values of service before self," said Tharp.

Tharp had the opportunity to interact with the children of Bangui. She taught them a few words of English and showed them some hand games that go beyond language like patty cake and rock, paper, scissors.

However it wasn't just her showing the kids new tricks, they also taught her some phrases in their native language, Sango.

Helping to change more than 200 people's lives had a great impact on the 21 year-old Airman.

"We complain about getting up in the morning, having to go to work and about the food at the chow hall, when their entire thought is 'what are my family and I going to eat today,'" said Tharp.

Though she only spent a week in the country, Tharp aims to raise $24,000 to donate to the villagers so they can continue to make improvements to their villages.

"Just because I'm out of the country doesn't mean they are out of sight, out of mind," said the determined Airman.

12/4/2012 3:32:24 PM ET
So great to know that you can serve others before yourself. Way to go Jessica Thanks US Air Force for allowing her to help others out on her leave.
Daron Butler, USA
12/2/2012 10:51:28 AM ET
rock on tharp glad to see your doing big things
SrA Taylor, kadena
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