A team from the South Dakota Army National Guard (SDARNG) specialized in carpentry and construction, and members of the Suriname Army joined efforts and knowledge from August 14th to 24th to modernize the O.S. Majosteeg elementary school in the district of Wanica, Suriname, which serves 450 students daily. The renovation project is a result of the affiliation between Suriname and South Dakota under the U.S. National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program (SPP) to exchange knowledge, training, and cooperation, while simultaneously benefiting the Surinamese people most in need.
“Most, if not all, states [in the U.S.] have a partnership with a country through the National Guard Bureau. We organize a dozen exchanges each year where we bring people from South Dakota to Suriname and vice versa. This allows us to gain a better understanding of how the armies from each place function,” explained U.S. Army Captain Betsy Suhr, the bilateral affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Suriname and head of the project.
The renovation was made possible thanks to $15,000 from U.S. Southern Command, through an agreement with Suriname’s Ministry of Education. In January 2017, a team from the armies of both countries, accompanied by representatives of the government of Suriname, visited 10 public schools.
“The Ministry of Education chose the Majosteeg school based on the embassy’s recommendations and the skills available at the South Dakota Army National Guard,” said Capt. Suhr. “The team that did the work was picked by the National Guard, taking into account the service members’ experience during previous projects and their specialization in construction.”
Carpentry and construction to the school’s rescue
The 11 members of SDARNG, along with their Surinamese Army counterparts, were tasked with fixing bathrooms, installing plumbing, laying tiles, improving the drainage system, restoring the electrical wiring, repairing doors, and building separate bathrooms for the youngest children.
U.S. Army Specialist Timothy Fuerst, a builder/carpenter who participated in the work said that that type of project is important because it gives both armies an opportunity to share their knowledge and learn new ways of doing things. “Each year, a different group of members of our unit goes to Suriname to have this experience. We are prepared as specialists in construction, but when we arrived, we realized we have a lot to learn,” said Spc. Furest. “We had not mastered the process of tiling or installing electrical wiring, and the folks from the Surinamese Army taught us. They also taught us how to mix cement on the ground to be more effective. It is interesting to learn each country’s techniques to develop a better way of building based on these experiences.”
The group of specialists chosen for the project gained their experience in carpentry and construction as special envoys to similar projects in nations like Iraq and Jordan. However, this was the first time they participated in a mission to a country closer to home.
“They got us fired up to improve this school that serves a good part of the kids in the area,” said U.S. Army Specialist Christian Cap, a SDARNG builder/carpenter. “Wanica is Suriname’s smallest district, with a population of around 80,000 people.”
“When we showed up, the kids were still in school and wanted to help us. It was very exciting to see how the community came together to support the project, and how they welcomed this improvement to the children’s quality of life,” said U.S. Army Specialist Richard Schiradely, another member of the SDARNG crew. “The community’s good attitude made the job fun. I would definitely love to participate in an experience like this again.”
Eleven years of partnership
Under SPP, South Dakota and Suriname have partnered since 2006 to organize different exchanges to benefit men and women from both institutions. Some of the main exchanges have been the Military Affairs Subject Matter Expert Exchange, Strategic Planning, and National Vacation Day in Suriname.
Repairing schools has been among the projects most highly anticipated by the community. In 2016, both armies worked together to renovate the O.S. Santodorp school in Paramaribo. This project was the first example of this new area of cooperation between the United States and Suriname.
“We hope to continue to strengthen the engineering-related partnership with Suriname. Renovating schools is definitely an area that deserves attention,” concluded Capt. Suhr. “We would like to continue to lend children a helping hand through projects that can provide opportunities for mutual learning in the area of engineering for the U.S. and Surinamese armies.”