GORE BAY—Students in Heather Jefkins’ Grade 7/8 class at Charles C. McLean Public School had an opportunity to meet Royal Canadian Air Force Major Leslie Doering on June 4.
He travelled from Ottawa to Gore Bay after completing his six-month deployment as a Military Liaison Officer (MLO) with the UN in Raja, South Sudan.
During his visit to the school, he shared a number of images from OP SOPRANO, the Canadian contingent with the UN Peacekeeping force (UNMISS) in South Sudan—kilometre after kilometre of red dirt roads, scorched along the sides to keep walking children safe from mongooses, poisonous snakes and other killer wildlife; smiling children seeing themselves for the first time in the screen of a cell phone or a digital camera; a bird’s-eye view from a UN helicopter transporting peacekeepers across the world’s newest country.
Heather Jefkins’ class began corresponding with Lt. Col. Richard Quinn, the Task Force Commander with OP SOPRANO, based in Juba, South Sudan last September. Students communicated with Lt. Col. Quinn through letters, e-mails and Skype. With his help, they organized the shipment of 12 Christmas packages, one for each Canadian serving with the UN operation.
One of the soldiers who received a package was Major Doering, who has been corresponding with the class since January. He volunteered to visit the school to meet his pen pals and share his experience overseas with them.
Major Doering spent more than two hours presenting still photos and videos, describing his life as an MLO working with the UN, while on operations with the Canadian Forces and when posted at home across Canada. He shared information about South Sudan, including its political situation and the reality of life for its citizens. He also talked about how people like him visit with the local residents to find ways to make their lives better.
Prior to his deployment, Major Doering received training at the Peace Support Training Centre in Kingston where he worked with people from Canada, Guatamala, Tanzania and Chile. As part of this training, he completed role-playing exercises to ensure he understood the cultural norms of South Sudan and did not offend local people as he went about his work. In addition, he received training in how to deal with weapons that might be found while on patrol and learned to recognize various land mines, which could be found anywhere, as the country was torn by civil war for more than a decade.
Major Doering shared photos of his “force protection,” which were provided by Kenyan troops. Unlike soldiers in a combat role, MLOs like Major Doering do their work unarmed. Although the civil war is over, and South Sudan is now independent, there are still rebel factions that might threaten the lives of those working for the UN. For this reason, Major Doering was protected by an armed forces unit from Kenya, which was part of UNMISS. One of the interesting facts he shared with the class was Kenyan’s love of teatime. They make their tea with milk instead of water.
Students were dismayed at the poverty evident in Major Doering’s photographs. They were also amazed by the explanations of the monetary system and the value of items based on South Sudanese currency. Students saw photos of a school, which was little more than a roof, with logs inside for students to sit on, and learned that few of the communities had schools. Sometimes as many as 2,000 school-aged children could live in a community and have basically nothing to do except wait to grow up to either get married or get a job. As part of this explanation, Major Doering told the class that when he saw this, he decided to get soccer balls from Canada, and donate them to communities to make sure the children had something fun and physically active to do.
Part of Major Doering’s video presentation came as a surprise to teacher Jefkins and her class. He showed a video of himself presenting a bag of soccer balls to a teacher at a school in one of the communities he was responsible for as an MLO. After he handed over the soccer balls, he then showed a poster that said the balls had been “donated on behalf of Mrs. Jefkins’ Grade 7/8 class at C.C. McLean Public School.” He said the teacher had posted the sign up at the school and told people about the children at the school in Canada. Heather Jefkins and her students were delighted by this, and thought it was, in the words of some of the students, “really cool!”
Major Doering presented a carved statue to Heather Jefkins for the school, a gift from Lt. Col. Quinn as Task Force Commander, and the rest of the OP SOPRANO personnel who had received cards, letters and packages from the students during the deployment of the CF contingent. He told the class that this statue is normally reserved for dignitaries visiting Canada House in Juba, and it was an expression of thanks from the members of OP SOPRANO. He also presented UN badges to the students who had helped pack his treat box.
Ms. Jefkins asked students to write a letter about what they thought of Major Doering’s presentation. Grade 8 student Alanna McFadden’s response perhaps said it all: “I enjoyed Major Doering’s visit. I believe he taught everyone something, and it was a good learning opportunity for everyone. It was cool to see the stuff that he passed around and all the photos he showed us. This made me thankful and more grateful for our Canadian soldiers and Canadian Peacekeepers.”
Ms. Jefkins plans to continue to have her class correspond with Canadian Forces personnel in the 2013-2014 school year. If you know a Canadian Forces member who would be interesting in pairing up with students to share information about his or her job, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.