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Need that may never be fully met

Lt. Col. Rob Toth, 15th SOS commander, is swarmed by children at Aldea Infantil Sos La Ceiba, Honduras. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Heidi Davis)

Lt. Col. Rob Toth, 15th SOS commander, is swarmed by children at Aldea Infantil Sos La Ceiba, Honduras. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Heidi Davis)

A young girl excitedly opens her box of goodies after receiving it from Santa Claus at Aldea Infantil SOS de La Ceiba, Honduras. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Heidi Davis)

A young girl excitedly opens her box of goodies after receiving it from Santa Claus at Aldea Infantil SOS de La Ceiba, Honduras. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Heidi Davis)

BASE AEREA, LA CEIBA, HONDURAS -- Close your eyes and imagine for a moment that you’re 6 years old and living in Honduras. Your parents have told you that they can’t afford to take care of you, so they’re sending you to a city orphanage to live with 45 other abandoned children. You have nothing more than the clothes on your back and a few items to call your own. For the next several years, scarcity is all you will know, until you’re old enough to make it on your own.
For the children who live in Honduras – more specifically, La Ceiba and Soto Cano orphanages – this is reality.

Each year since 1992, Hurlburt Field has flown supplies to the children at Aldea Infantil SOS de La Ceiba and Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe orphanages. This year, 28 Airmen flew to Honduras Dec. 20 on a 15th Special Operations Squadron MC-130H Talon II and a 9th SOS MC-130P Combat Shadow with 16,000 pounds of supplies.

“We do what we can to help, but there is always a need in place,” said Maj. Manuel Torres, Joint Special Operations University and Operation Christmas Wish co-founder. “We try to give them a few hours of joy and supplies to help make their lives more comfortable.”

The Honduran government provides the living quarters, but other supplies are gathered solely through donations and outside help like Operation Christmas Wish, Major Torres said.

“Each of Hurlburt’s squadrons were given a list of the children at Aldea and Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe,” said Col. Rob Toth, 15th Special Operations Squadron commander. “Individuals selected a child from the list and filled a plastic container with toys, a toothbrush, crayons, paper and other items the child needs. It’s a way to bring hope to the children at least once a year.”

After a roughly six-month drive for supplies, the aircraft were loaded for a four-hour flight to the Central American country.
Immediately after arriving at Base Aérea in La Ceiba, Honduras, the Operation Christmas Wish crew and 20 Honduran soldiers unloaded the gifts from the planes and onto trucks headed for the orphanages.

“The Honduran soldiers were selected by the Base Aerea commander to help with the Operation Christmas Wish mission,” Major Torres said. “The base knows the importance of our mission and anticipates our arrival months in advance. The people are always willing to do what they can to help.”

The 20-minute bus ride to Aldea revealed the destitution of the country as the bus passed rundown, one-room shacks, barefoot children playing in muddy, trash-filled streets and women washing the family’s clothes in a nearby creek.

Pausing at the beginning of the Aldea driveway to allow Capt. Darin Wheeler, 15th SOS, to change into Santa Claus, then Operation Christmas Wish went into action, to sweeten the lives of the children.

Santa Claus is a symbol of hope for the children. When they see “him” arriving on the bus, they know good things are to come, Captain Wheeler said.

As the bus pulled through the orphanage gate, 45 children ran alongside shouting, “Santa! Santa! Santa!” The children rushed the steps of the bus, as Santa Claus stepped down to see them and make this day more special than any other day of the year.

The remaining Airmen also went into action smothering the children with attention and filling the children’s bellies with sweet treats of doughnuts, juice and candy.

“I didn’t know how to react at first,” said Tech. Sgt. Lance Bauer, 16th Security Forces Squadron. “This little boy came up and held my hand, and others hugged me and held on tight. I guess they were just looking for love from someone.”

If an empty lap was available, the children eagerly jumped to the opportunity for affection.

“Before we left for Honduras, I looked at some of the photos of the children I saw last year,” said Airman 1st Class Kimberly Batts, 16th Communications Squadron. “When we arrived at the orphanage (in La Ceiba), it was sad to see that most of those children were still here this year.”

Before heading for Soto Cano, the Operation Christmas Wish crew said goodbye to the children – most with tears in their eyes.

“The impact that it (the trip) had on me was pretty significant,” said Tech. Sgt. Jason Hopper, 25th Information Operations Squadron. “It makes me feel really good to be a part of something like this knowing how much it means to the kids...I’m volunteering again next year.”

Although the staff at Aldea Infantil SOS de La Ceiba does what it can to take care of the children, the needs are always present. This year, Team Hurlburt was able to donate a refrigerator, cribs, chairs, clothing, toiletries and school supplies, but more items will be required each year, as the number of children increases and the necessities become greater, Major Torres said.

After a night of rest at Soto Cano Air Base, the team headed for the second orphanage – Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, which is located just a few miles away from the base. Capt. Jim Haama, Soto Cano airfield operations, drove a 15-passenger van with eight crewmembers and gifts stacked to the ceiling to Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe.

Once at the orphanage, the crew unloaded the gifts and talked with some of the teachers and resident children.

“The orphanage houses 26 boys, 15 girls and nine single mothers,” said Lesby, a teacher at the orphanage. “The children are sent here because they’ve either been removed from their homes because of abuse or their parents are too poor to care for them.

“The approximately 45 children are taught by five workers up until the sixth grade,” she said. “Once they have finished the sixth grade, they must leave because we can no longer meet their needs.”

The crew was given a chance to see first hand what it was like to live in Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.

The orphanage is broken up into about six small homes located on the top and bottom of a large hill with a small schoolhouse. Because of the poverty-stricken area in which the orphanage is located, items are in short supply and usually at risk of being stolen. For those reasons, it’s difficult to meet even the simplest needs of the residents, Captain Haama said as he led the crew on a tour of the facilities.

The kitchen had black mold, peeling walls, missing tiles and no electricity. Because of a lack of money for gas grills or electric stoves, the residents cooked meals over open fire.

“The kitchen ceiling is blackened with ash because of several accidental cooking fires,” Captain Haama said. “They desperately need a better method for cooking.”

Moving on, the crew took an astounding look at one of the orphanage bathrooms. One word to describe it – dangerous. The room was large enough for a toilet and little less.

The toilet was covered in rust and mold. Pipes were falling out of the crumbled wall, and wires hung from the ceiling.

Captain Haama led the group to another house to see the small bedrooms and eating area.

“This house is a little ‘nicer’ – I use that word loosely because, by our standard, they could all use work,” Captain Haama said. “We’ve (Soto Cano) tried to do our part to fix broken screens, buy silverware and clothes pins, but the people need so much more.”

Driving to the bottom of the hill, Captain Haama showed the crew the missionary quarters.

“Several churches send transit missionaries to stay near the orphanage and help make repairs, lay cement for well covers and mold shingles,” Captain Haama said. “As of now, all supplies are stored in the missionary quarters in two rooms.”

The ride back to the base was quiet as the team pondered what they had seen. It was a place most will never forget.

The people and planes returned home later that evening with pictures in their mind and memories in their hearts.

“We’ll begin planning for next year’s trip in the summer,” Colonel Toth said. “Hopefully, we can bring back even more supplies.”