Three Airmen from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base are among a team offering community-based learning to Afghan children and families temporarily residing at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. The volunteer teachers, all of whom are junior enlisted Airmen, provide instruction to 30 to 40 students several evenings per week.
The Airmen are at JB MDL in support of Operation Allies Welcome, working in the Joint Reception Center on base to help greet and orient guests arriving through Philadelphia International Airport as part of the resettlement process.
“It’s unlike any military mission or deployment I’ve ever been part of,” said Senior Master Sgt. Michael Eonta, senior enlisted leader for night shift at the JRC. “Nothing we’re doing here is something that we’ve ever trained for – there’s not a textbook or a computer-based training for how to do this.”
Within the JRC, four lines of effort guide the day-to-day tasks. These priorities are reception, safety and security, care, and community. Due to the unique nature of the mission, Airmen working in the JRC are encouraged and empowered to develop creative ways to meet the priorities, he explained.
That’s how the informal English school-prep classes began.
“These kids are about to go out into our world, so we realized we needed to prepare them for that,” said Senior Airman Cicely McWhorter, passenger services apprentice, 87th Aerial Port Squadron.
McWhorter joined the Air Force Reserve in 2020. She met Airman Scotie Wood while both trainees were participating in the development training flight in the 445th Airlift Wing, and then the Airmen wound up in the same flight at basic military training and attended technical school together. Shortly after returning from tech school, while on orders for annual tour, both Airmen received the opportunity to deploy in support of Operation Allies Welcome. They both decided to go.
“The first week we got out here, a fellow Airman invited us to come see the class, and we just fell in love with it,” said Wood, a cargo-processing apprentice in the 87th APS. “The people who started the classes were heading home, and we didn’t want the kids to fall through the cracks, so we took it over.”
At first, the volunteer teachers focused on teaching kindergarten basics like the alphabet, names of colors and shapes, and recognizing numbers. Over time, they expanded the course content to include lessons on the seasons, holidays, customs and greetings. Despite the language barrier, the Airmen say they try to emulate a traditional classroom setting and role-play scenarios with the students to simulate the routines and interactions they will encounter once they begin school.
“There’s not a specific lesson plan. We try to consider what these kids are going to need to know – we want them to be ready,” said Senior Airman Taylor McAfee, financial operations technician, 88th Comptroller Squadron.
To prepare for the classes, McAfee said she researched techniques and tips from English as a second language websites. Another Airman purchased a miniature projector to add an audiovisual element in the classroom.
“The kids come back often – not always every single day, but we do see a lot of the same faces,” said McAfee, an active-duty Airman who learned about the classes through word of mouth and immediately wanted to be involved. “It’s nice to know that they’re getting something positive out of this temporary experience that they’re having.”
When they aren’t helping the kids learn about letters, numbers and American culture, McAfee, McWhorter and Wood work 12-hour night shifts in various areas of the JRC: commuting to Philadelphia International Airport to escort guests to the base, in-processing guests and filing their medical records, and helping guests locate their lodging assignment, make necessary appointments and get settled in America. Some days, the JRC welcomes hundreds of guests at a time.
“Teaching these classes isn’t an assigned duty. It’s a volunteer effort– they are doing this of their own volition,” said Eonta, who is also part of the 87th APS at Wright-Patterson AFB.
“In line with two of our priorities, care and community, we really empower our Airmen and give them a lot of freedom to just be human and treat these kids like they might treat their nieces and nephews, or neighbor’s kids,” he said. “We want to set our guests up for success when they leave here, and this is one way we can do that.”
It’s this long-term impact that the teachers say keeps them going.
“We have so much empathy for the guests,” McWhorter said. “I think of my siblings … or my best friend, who is Islamic. The fact that people go through this breaks our hearts. It’s one thing to go to a grocery store and have someone thank you for your service. Here, when the guests say ‘thank you for your service,’ it’s a different kind of thank you. It means so much.”
McWhorter and Wood both celebrated one year since BMT graduation while deployed. Wood noted that the experiences she’s had on this deployment solidified her decision to reenlist once eligible.
“There are some really vast cultural differences, but they are still just kids,” McAfee said. “They are going to be citizens, this is going to be their life now. We’re the first step, the first experience they’re going to have with American classrooms and life – that’s a big responsibility.”
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