Story and photos by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nate Littlejohn
People who volunteer improve the lives of others in obvious ways. Recipients of community service efforts gain something tangible: a hot meal, a home improvement, funding or staffing where resources are lacking or nonexistent. Homeless veterans, single-parent families, environmental organizations and non-profit groups succeed when volunteers work for their benefit.
Coast Guard women and men, whether active duty or civilian employees, make a living serving the public – it’s their job. A life dedicated to service, many members of the Coast Guard family often extend their efforts beyond the workday, giving selflessly to help others.
Coast Guard volunteers in Virginia’s Hampton Roads area seize opportunities to give of themselves, resulting not only in gains for folks on the receiving end, but in forming stronger relationships among Coast Guard and community members.
On one such occasion, a group of about 30 Coast Guard servicemembers and their families spent their Saturday volunteering for the Habitat for Humanity Peninsula and Greater Williamsburg Chapter in Hampton, Va. Habitat for Humanity, in partnership with Hampton Redevelopment and Housing Authority sponsored a housing blitz.
“Unlike the typical Habitat for Humanity home building projects, we got to walk off at the end of the day seeing a finished project,” said Chief Petty Officer Todd Bontrager, a damage controlman at Surface Forces Logistics Center in Norfolk, Va. “We took on three houses, made repairs to gutters, siding, porches and did some landscaping.”
Similar to Habitat for Humanity’s home building program, all labor and materials for the blitz were provided free of charge to eligible homeowners thanks to generous community sponsors and volunteers.
All that was asked of the Coast Guardsmen was to show up with a willingness to work.
“These projects benefitted the homeowners and the surrounding community members by letting them know they are not alone, and there are avenues they can take if help is needed,” said Chief Petty Officer Christopher Jacobs, an electrician’s mate aboard Coast Guard Cutter Vigorous out of Virginia Beach, Va.
The blitz demonstrated some less-celebrated benefits associated with volunteering – when giving back to the community is a team effort, often more than one community reaps the reward.
“I was very fortunate to be involved in this project,” said Chief Petty Officer Arturo Delacruz, an electrician’s mate at SFLC. “I saw the benefits go both ways. Coast Guard volunteers were given a chance to reach out to help people, but this also gave us a chance to provide some insight and education to citizens who don’t know much about the Coast Guard. I was approached by a civilian volunteer and had the opportunity to talk to him about what the Coast Guard does on a daily basis.”
In addition to offering community support, improving relationships and giving back, Coast Guard efforts at the housing blitz also demonstrated a simple component of human nature that makes volunteering worthwhile for so many.
“Within the Coast Guard these types of events encourage teamwork and show the community we are invested in their continued well-being,” said Chief Petty Officer Allyson Vaskey, a storekeeper at Shore Infrastructure Logistics Center in Norfolk. “They bring together all rates and ranks in an environment that promotes camaraderie. Community service, such as the Habitat for Humanity event, creates a stronger bond within the services and promotes mutual respect. Throughout the year there are multiple organizations who assist military families and this it our way of giving back for the support they provide us. Plus, helping another person in this way just makes you feel good.”
The Coast Guard invests in environmental stewardship as one of the service’s 11 missions. Some Hampton Roads members recently extended that mission in an unofficial, off-duty capacity into local woodlands and wetlands.
On Nov. 13, eight active duty personnel from various departments in the Coast Guard 5th District supported the Elizabeth River Project. The group spent the afternoon removing invasive English ivy from Paradise Creek Park in Portsmouth, Va.
In addition to removing more than a dozen garbage bags of the pesky plant, Coast Guardsmen from various departments formed bonds that foster better communication within the Coast Guard and promote future volunteer efforts.
“The 5th District is a great place with great people, but the Portsmouth Federal Building, where most of us work, is compartmentalized,” said Lt. Daniel Philips. “It felt great to get out in the fresh air, enjoy people you don’t see in your normal day, help the environment and be a part of the Elizabeth River Project. This is a win-win situation for everybody.”
“Our volunteer efforts for the Elizabeth River Project helped defoliate the park of an invasive plant species, said Master Chief Petty Officer Adam Wendell, command master chief for Atlantic Area and 5th District staff. “ This promotes a positive experience for families in this area for many years to come. Volunteering is an extremely effective way of getting to know your coworkers in an informal setting where you can learn about your peers and share personal stories and interests. This allows for effective bonding with your team and promoting a supportive network within your work place.”
Volunteerism in the Coast Guard often means face-to-face interaction with the people they help. Coast Guard efforts to feed the homeless in their communities means seeing the faces of those they’re helping. Leonard Rich, civilian employee for the 5th District, has seen more faces than most while leading the Coast Guard charge to volunteer for Oasis Social Ministry in Portsmouth.
“I have been working with Oasis through my church for several years and members of the Coast Guard 5th District began to work with Oasis in support of feeding the homeless and hungry citizens of Portsmouth back in January of 2012,” said Rich.
The Coast Guard provides ten volunteers to staff breakfasts approximately eight times each year. Coast Guard civilian employees, enlisted members and officers gather before the sun comes up to prepare the meal in Oasis’s busy kitchen. Chiefs scrub pots and pans, commanders cook and captains hand out plates to hungry community members.
“There are many individuals we serve that I know depend on us for meals,” said Rich.
Hampton Roads Coast Guard members continue to work on and off duty to serve their communities. Regardless of their goals in giving, everyone benefits from community service.
“Volunteering not only helps others, it helps us as well,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Cecelia Henry, a yeoman for the 5th District. “When we give our time and effort to make a difference, it makes us more positive knowing we are reaching out and showing the goodwill we have in our hearts.”