AD DIWANIYAH, Iraq -- The orphanage was large and orderly, about 10 tidily-made beds filled several rooms. Although it smelled slightly of mold and a leaky pipe dripped a constant steady beat on the floor of the bathroom, everything was neat and organized.
In a large room filled with children from the Aleskan Orphan House for Children, Marines from Company A, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), and soldiers from the 404th Battalion, 50th Iraqi National Guard Brigade, handed out hundreds of toys and school supplies to more than 50 children here, Nov. 3.
"We can't give them a lot of things here but we can give them kindness and a home. The kind Americans have given them toys to make them smile," said Thamer Najah Al Mhana, manager of the orphanage.
According to Capt. Robert B. Sotire, company commander, Alpha Co., BLT 1/4, 11th MEU (SOC), one of his platoon commanders, 1st Lt. Christopher M. Smith, a Cerritos, Calif., native and platoon commander for 1st Platoon, started the ball rolling on the toy giveaway mission.
"When (Smith) went out in a civil affairs patrol, he noticed a need for toys and school supplies for the children of the orphanage and other schools in the area," said Sotire. "He took the initiative from there."
A few months ago Smith sent a request to the people in Cerritos to see if anyone would be willing to donate toys and school supplies to the Marines so they could distribute them to needy children in Diwaniyah.
"I originally contacted several people back in Calif., one of whom was an old school teacher of mine who is now the mayor of Cerritos," Smith said. "After that, the snowball effect took control and through friends and family, e-mails and the Internet, word spread pretty quickly. That's why things have been so successful."
According to Smith, members of the Cerritos city council played a big part in getting all the toys here. They organized the drive and, along with people from four other states, donated more than 60 boxes of school supplies and toys equaling more than $15,000. About 40 people, organizations, various schools and the Cerritos city government contributed to the toy drive.
"It started off small and it turned out pretty big," Smith said. "It's surprising to see how many people back home will jump at the opportunity to do their part to help out when you ask them."
Smith said this mission also afforded junior Marines of the unit a chance to be able to shift gears and do the humanitarian assistance aspect of the Marine Corps and help out people in the community.
"It was nice to be able to hand out toys to the kids. It makes you feel like you're doing something worthwhile out here other than combat, which is all we did in Najaf," said Lance Cpl. Joseph N. Richardson, M249 Squad Automatic Weapon gunner, 2nd Fireteam, 2nd Squad, 5th Platoon, Alpha Co., BLT 1/4, 11th MEU (SOC). "It's good to do something on the other side of things."
According to Richardson, the Iraqi children and the orphanage staff were very appreciative.
"There wasn't a thing in that orphanage. I didn't see anything in there other than tables, chairs and beds," Richardson said. "You could definitely tell that we brightened their day."
Along with helping out the children of the orphanage, Alpha Company Marines took the toy giveaway mission as an opportunity to teach a lesson to the Iraqi National Guard soldiers.
"What we did today had two functions," said Sotire, "To help the Iraqi children by giving them some toys and to teach (the ING) civil affairs and public relations."
According to Sotire, training with the ING never ends. They are integrated into everything the Marines do, and thus everything becomes a training evolution.
"Any time that we can spend training with (the ING), whether it is cleaning weapons, firing on the range, doing a combat patrol or a raid, or giving out toys to orphans, they're learning something," Sotire explained.
Sotire wanted to make sure the ING soldiers handed out toys to the children personally so they could experience the feeling of generosity. He also wanted to teach them that being a soldier is not only about fighting.
"I definitely think it was a very positive lesson for them," Sotire continued. "It's also good for the Iraqi people to see a different side of the ING. Most of the time they see them patrolling or conducting a raid. This time it was something completely different and very positive."
The orphanage has many shortfalls, but the children and staff remain positive and happy.
"American forces have helped us many times and as a father for 50 orphaned sons, thank you for helping bring prosperity to this orphanage," said Al Mhana. "We are very poor here and don't have the money to give the children everything they need. Anything you can do to help us is appreciated."