By Sgt. 1st Class Michael Hampton
KENNER, La. -- It’s been a long time since members of Task Force Commonwealth had lunch in an elementary school cafeteria but on one fall afternoon that is exactly where the Soldiers found themselves. On Oct. 14, 2005, task force Soldiers went to John James Audubon Elementary School in Kenner La., a suburb of New Orleans, to have lunch with the students there.
The idea came from one of the Soldiers in the task force who noticed that more and more children were returning to the Jefferson Parrish neighborhood and seemed fascinated by the sight of Soldiers in the neighborhoods they were forced to abandon weeks earlier. Soldiers have been working there for over two weeks helping residents regain some sense of normalcy in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Audubon Elementary School principal Caroline Roques was ecstatic when approached with the idea. “I think it’s a wonderful idea, these kids have been through so much and it would mean a great deal to them to meet the people that are helping to restore their neighborhood,” Roques said.
Normally, Audubon Elementary has a student enrollment of approximately 500 students but to date has about 250 students enrolled. “Many of the students are still displaced and some will not return,” Roques stated. “But we are steadily increasing enrollment daily as we have had about 70 new students to enroll in the past week.”
Many of Audubon’s students come from low income households and are still living in homes that are in various stages of repair, some still without electricity or adequate plumbing. However, it did not curb their enthusiasm as they shared their stories, insights and dreams over lunch with the Soldiers.
Twin brother and sister Ruben and Rebecca Lee are in the fifth grade and talked about their experience while staying in the Louisiana Superdome. “It was scary there, and there was really nowhere to sleep or do anything,” Ruben said.
“I’m just glad me and my brother are safe now and [were] able to come back to school,” Rebecca said.
Fourth graders Julianna and Gonzolo are Hispanic students who do not speak English. They have been at Audubon for less than a week. Spc. David Toruga, of the 429th Forward Support Battalion (Med) is bilingual and sat with them, sharing information about the National Guard and about their experience since being at Audubon.
At another table, Virginia Air Guard Chaplain Tom Kirles was on hand and encouraged a group of third graders to be good citizens as they surrounded him to get an autograph. Meanwhile, members of the 2nd Battalion, 116th Infantry flanked a group of first graders inside their classroom, giving them the ultimate show and tell experience while trying their hands at substitute teaching.
Master Sgt. Nevells, NCO in charged of the Kenner project, capped the afternoon off by giving the students a demonstration in drill and ceremonies. “Task Force—Attention…!” he shouted. “Forward March” as the Soldiers marched in cadence from the school cafeteria. The students cheered and shouted HOOA as the last Soldier disappeared through the doorway. The experience proved mutually rewarding for both Soldier and student as each came away with a renewed since of purpose and gratification.