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Volunteer awarded for helping international student pilots

COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- The United Way of Lowndes County recently selected Ms. Sharon Garriga as volunteer of the year. Among her other volunteering activities, Ms. Garriga has had a significant impact on international students at Columbus AFB. In the interview below, Ms. Garriga explains her actions with the international student program and the impact on CAFB and the local community.
What exactly is the award and what actions did you take that contributed to your selection?
"The Volunteer of the Year Award is presented by the Community Volunteer Center at the Annual United Way Meeting in Lowndes County. It is given to the Lowndes County Volunteer who has made a significant contribution to the community through volunteer services.
I went to the CVC last April searching for volunteer opportunities and I happened to mention I was interested in international volunteer projects-if any existed! Ironically, a few days earlier, Major Bill Hendrickson had been in the office searching for a volunteer to work with the international student pilots at CAFB. We were introduced and the rest is history. My initial "job" was to serve as a community liaison between the base and the international office- with the emphasis on finding people in the community with an interest in being a sponsor for the students. As I began to approach people in the community about this, my priority changed to educating the community about the program. Very few civilians knew CAFB even trained these pilots and even fewer knew they could actually get involved. With the help of Meagan Coughlin, the director for the CVC, we started a huge public relations campaign with articles and interviews in the Commercial Dispatch and with speaking engagements at some of the civic clubs and organizations in town. We even invited some of the students to speak so the people could meet and enjoy the company of these pilots. Now a year later, all international students have sponsors and I keep a waiting list for the new guys who come here. Now that the community knows there is a need, they call me to Ask if they can sponsor a student--which makes my job much easier."
What led you to take such a serious role in helping international students?
"I became interested in international projects during a visit to Thailand in February, 2006. I also teach World History at Heritage Academy, so I felt the combination of teaching this subject and working with people from all over the world would be beneficial to the way I teach and see the different countries, cultures, and religions. When I actually met the students and got to know them, the work became much more personal. I now try to meet them at the airport when they arrive in Columbus, so I can put a face to a name (and they can do the same with me). I find out a little about them, so that as I look for a sponsor, I can try to match people who will actually enjoy becoming friends."
What lessons have you learned through working with so many different cultures?
"I have learned that because these guys have a different background and culture, they have so many interesting stories to share with me. I have learned how intelligent they are because they are studying to be pilots in English, which is their second or third language, while I still struggle speaking one language correctly. I admire their courage to leave their country and families to come to America, as an ally, in order to one day help protect us just like our own Air Force pilots will do. I listen when they talk about their moms back home who worry about them, their sisters who are getting married, but will wait until they get home, or how they miss their baby sons and daughters or the new wives they left behind. The lesson I have learned is that these wonderful students are from other countries-not other planets! They are just like us in a lot of ways. How often do we assume that because someone may be from a third world country that, in some way, that means they are less educated or less civilized. It just means they are less Americanized. I love my country, but it has been nice to take the time to really appreciate what the pilots love about their countries, as well."
What recommendations can you make to others to help in welcoming our international students?
"My recommendation to anyone wanting to be a part of this wonderful experience is to call me for more information about how to be a sponsor to these pilots. These students look forward to getting their sponsor. They are very busy and do not have a lot of time, but they like to know there is someone they can call if they have a problem, need information, or just want to get away from the base to relax for a while. Everyone in Columbus can welcome these guys/girls even though they might not want to be an official sponsor. Extending invitations to these students to games, activities, dinner, cook-outs, movies, etc. is a great way to get them involved in our town. They may even enjoy coming to the schools or to civic club meetings to talk about their countries. Another interesting fact is that many of these pilots are leaders in their communities back home. Many have been involved in their own civic duties or in helping the less fortunate in their countries. They might enjoy sharing those stories with the leaders of our community."
Do you have any other comments you'd like to make?
"I want to say how much I appreciate the many military families who have always been there to sponsor our international students. Before the word got out to the community that more sponsors were needed, it was the military who "stepped up to the plate" to sponsor. We still have a lot of military families who sponsor and it is really appreciated.
Ironically, I have lived in this area all of my life-only ten miles from the base. Yet, I have learned so much about the USAF through this international program. I have met many wonderful military families who I now consider friends. I have come to appreciate the role the base plays in our city. I have such a deep respect for all our Air Force pilots, students, and instructors.
I feel that as Americans we sometimes take our military for granted. In Columbus, we have one of the most magnificent Air Force bases in the world. It is the one of just a few bases in the world that trains these students from allied militaries all over the world to be pilots. Columbus is so fortunate to have these international students here. We need to spend time with them and educate ourselves about other cultures and religions while we are forming life-long friendships."