CEBU, Philippines - Thirty Sailors from the amphibious dock landing ship USS Pearl Harbor (LSD 52) and embarked Marines assigned to the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) took part in a community service (COMSERV) project at the Children's Shelter of Cebu in Cebu, Philippines, May 28.
During the day-long project, the group of Sailors and Marines helped to clean up and make improvements to the shelter as well as spend time with the 80 children who reside at the shelter.
For Seaman Joy Bonnett, a Sailor assigned to Pearl Harbor, the event was more than just a COMSERV project; it was an emotional homecoming as she had previously lived at the shelter for eight years.
"I didn't think I would cry, but I did," said Bonnett. "Once I saw my house parents that took care of me from when I was five years old to 13 years old, and the aunties that helped take care of me, it was heartwarming. I really felt like I was back home."
Bonnett said she has fond memories of the years she and her five siblings spent at the shelter.
"My mom couldn't raise us and my dad passed away when I was five," said Bonnett. "So she thought it was better for all of us to be together at an orphanage rather than being raised struggling with her."
That's how she came to know her second family at the Children's Shelter.
"We take care of kids who don't have families," said Mitch Ohlendorf, executive director of the Children's Shelter of Cebu. "The kids might be orphaned, they might be abandoned by their parents or they might be neglected to the point that their parents just can't take care of them."
Ohlendorf said Bonnett's story is a familiar one to the employees who run the shelter.
"Hers is a unique story in several ways as well," Ohlendorf said. "Most kids probably don't stay here as long as she did. It's because larger sibling groups often take longer to get adopted. There just aren't a lot of families available willing to adopt older, larger sibling groups."
Ohlendorf said luckily for her and her siblings, two young Minnesotans came into their lives.
"Her adoptive parents came here to work in our school for a couple of years," said Ohlendorf. "Joy and some of her brothers and sisters were students. They got to know the kids and fell in love with them and adopted them."
Bonnett said the couple initially got close with her autistic younger brother and ultimately fell in love with the whole family.
"They were like 27 and 24 at that time," Bonnett said. "That's amazing to have six kids at 24 and 27 years old."
Bonnett said the transition from living on the tropical Island of Cebu to the chilling winters of Middle America brought a few more challenges than just learning how to deal with snow.
"I'd get in trouble sometimes because I wasn't used to somebody telling me what to do," she said. "I remember feeling confined in a family situation. In the orphanage you can do whatever because there are so many kids. It was hard dealing with the rules at first, but I adjusted."
Bonnett said her family in Richfield, Minn., has grown over the years. She now has 10 brothers and sisters. Her parents adopted two more children and had two of their own.
With less than a year in the Navy, Bonnett found it surprising that she was able to accomplish one of her life goals of going back to visit the shelter.
"I was pretty shocked. Out of all the islands or places we could visit we pull into Cebu," said Bonnett I was pretty excited to go back; I've always wanted to go back. That's why I joined the Navy to get money to go back to the Philippines. I'm grateful for it."
Bonnett said she had hoped to visit her birth mother during the visit as well but was not able to due to her mother living on a different island.
"I'll probably go back someday to visit her," said Bonnett. "My family back in Minnesota is my real family now, but I'd still like to meet her someday."
By days end, the group of Sailors and Marines had trimmed a row of overgrown hedges and performed other maintenance at Bonnett's former home. However, the real impact of the COMSERV came from the time they spent with the children.
"Everyone interacted really well with the kids. The kids were having a lot of fun," said Bonnett.
Pearl Harbor and the 11th MEU are part of the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group that is currently deployed to the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations.