Crossing Borders: Airmen connect with kids at Korean orphanage

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jake Barreiro
  • 51st Fighter Wing Public Affairs
The room was quiet for the moment. A dozen adults stood by, some with hands in their pockets, some with arms crossed. Some paced, others surveyed and some sat down. All of them were waiting. Soon a child came running into the room, his stride stopped in front of the brown box one of the adults sat by. The box had that succor for the heart and soul of every child... candy. Then, like a fallen snowflake precedes an avalanche, dozens of other children came running into the room for theirs. "Annyeong haseyo," they shouted, greeting the men and women who came to spend the afternoon with them.

This is where volunteers from Osan Air Base found themselves March 22, 2014, at the Aehyang Child Welfare Center in Pyeongtaek, Republic of Korea. Volunteers here carry out trips to this orphanage routinely in the hopes of positively impacting the community.

Senior Airman Kayla Ciriello, a 51st Comptroller Squadron relocations technician, organized the March 22 trip, and said she loved getting involved with the kids.

"It was cool to go and see what the kids do," she said. "It felt good to volunteer and help. It opened my eyes to what goes on by getting outside of the Songtan area. It was nice to branch out."

Inspired by a teacher's event a week earlier, Ciriello said she was curious to see how the base could help in local orphanages. After first-hand experience, she was moved by the amount of parentless children there.

"I felt like I was on a school playground," said Ciriello. "Seeing so many parentless kids was an eye opener."

In addition to handing out candy to the kids, the volunteers played games with them. Ciriello said her favorite part of the day was learning to play gonggi, a popular Korean children's game.

"Interacting with the kids, learning to play and having them teach me something, that was fun," said Ciriello. "Even though there was that language barrier, it gave us a way to communicate."

Tech. Sgt. Saara Mustapha, 51st Fighter Wing noncommissioned officer in charge of executive services, was at the orphanage for the second time and said learning to play gonggi was also her favorite part of the trip because it flipped her expectations of teaching the kids.

"I feel like the kids enjoyed us being there," said Mustapha. "They seemed really excited and full of energy. I was expecting to teach them some games, but they ended up teaching me. Just learning the games that they play as kids, that was fun and interesting."

Like the other volunteers, Mustapha said she likes being around kids, and wanted to volunteer with them in the local community; however, before last December she had never been to an orphanage.

"It's something I wanted to do, be more involved in the community, specifically with children," said Mustapha. "I feel like we accomplished something. Even if for personal reasons, knowing that I spent time with the kids."

Mother of two, a four and six-year-old, Mustapha said she thinks orphans need the one-on-one interaction that's hard to get from anyone but a parent, and volunteers are doing a great service by donating their time and compassion to these kids.

"It looks like they get a lot of support from the local community, they seem close knit," said Mustapha. "Even when we were leaving, there were other volunteers going inside to spend time with the kids."

The orphanage also appreciates the base's outreach. Kim, Yong Sook, Aehyang Child Welfare Center director, said via translator the children had a great time playing games and sharing time with the Airmen.

"The orphans look forward to them coming back," she said. "They had such a great time and shared a lot of smiles."

Mustapha said she particularly liked the one-on-one interaction with the children, and while volunteering was rewarding, the kids wore her out.

"We were playing on a see-saw on the playground," said Mustapha. "I was going up and down, but apparently the kids want to bounce high on it. It takes a lot of leg muscles. I was tired."

In addition to gonggi and playground games, the volunteers also taught the orphans a ubiquitous American game: duck, duck, goose. Ciriello, who worked at a daycare before joining the Air Force, said there was an added barrier to teaching the orphans: language.

"I've always liked working with kids, but it was really different here than in the states," said Ciriello. "The language barrier was difficult. It was intimidating almost, but it forced me to interact with the kids by showing rather than telling."

Ciriello and Mustapha both advocate volunteering at the orphanage, and getting involved in the community anyway possible.

"Everyone should get out into the community and see what they're doing," said Ciriello. "It's a great experience and way to see a different perspective of Korean life."

Mustapha, who previously served in Korea at the Yongsan Garrison, said this is a meaningful opportunity because spending time in the community can make the difference between how service members and Americans at large are perceived in their host nation.

"I would encourage anybody who really loves kids to do this," said Mustapha. "Being stationed here before in '02-'03, I can tell the difference that community involvement makes. I think doing what we do shows that we're compassionate."

As the afternoon passed, the kids energetically played with their new friends. Many of the adults waned, bathed by the high sun, and marveled at the seemingly indispensable energy allotted to the children. Eventually it was time to leave. The children posed with the adults for a picture on the footsteps of the orphanage, some flashing the peace sign, others making faces. As they were sent back into their home a lot of the kids came back to the top of the stairway. "Annyeong hi gaseyo," they said. Going back to say goodbye, Ciriello embraced one of the kids, "We'll see you soon," she said.