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ANG Pilots Share Books and Flying Gear with Inner City Students

Jacksonville Fla- -- Mentoring is such a big part of coming into our own, that it is truly an honor when given the chance to pay it forward.  Two pilots from the 125th Fighter Wing here recently got to partake in a unique mentoring opportunity with folks much more junior than they. 

For the past several years, as part of Black History Month, personnel from the 125th Fighter Wing coordinate a reading program with several of Duval County's inner city elementary schools.  Capt. Brooke Cobbin is an Executive Officer within the Maintenance Group, and an elementary school principal here locally in Jacksonville.  Retired SMSgt, now working as a civilian, Karen Edwards-Baggs is the Real Property Manager for the 125th Civil Engineering Squadron.  Together, these two ladies created a schedule of hour-long slots, spanning 33 classrooms in five schools, over a week's period, for volunteers to come in and read to the students.

Maj. Stephen Pierce and Maj. Barry Sodini, F-15 pilots, not only read to these children, but also held a show-and-tell.  Bringing their gear in was a sure-fire way to win over these young hearts and minds.  Pierce and Sodini allowed the children to not only see, but actually try on their flying equipment, such as their helmets.  Catering to all five senses of a child helps to instill infinite possibility, by putting a brighter future within reach. 

Pierce commented on how much kids love pilots, especially military pilots, and are always happy to see them.

"From all different types of backgrounds, kids are kids," Pierce said.  "They love having us read to them."

Pierce said this was one of the best things he's done in his lifetime.

"Professional development, call it whatever, it was well worth it.  It gives you a different perspective on the big picture, of what's outside of our little bubble."

He also said mentoring programs like this are essential to building a relationship with people in the community.  Getting off base and speaking with the public helps the public see us not only as military members, but as real people.

"It's really important for people to know that we're out there," Pierce said.  "That way, 20 years from now, when they're wondering what they're going to do with their life, they know that the Florida Guard is around."

Sodini said he was thrilled with his experience, commending their squadron, and wing, in their support of them taking time off work to volunteer.  He said that most of these kids would never see something like this, unless it's brought to them, which was a great incentive for him to volunteer in the community.

"If they don't have a lifestyle or job to roll out, then they're just going to do what they see and what they know," Sodini said.  "These are the kids that are going to be replacing us."

Interacting with these kids was a phenomenal experience. Both pilots said they wouldn't hesitate to participate in volunteer programs again.

"I would do it every week if I had time to," Pierce said.

Sodini agreed and said there's a need for recognition and awareness of volunteer opportunities for future use.

"These opportunities exist, and kids really respond well to them," Sodini said.  "It's good for the community, good for your unit, good for you personally."