RIGA, Latvia – On April 28, 2018, 13 soldiers and airmen from the Michigan National Guard participated in a volunteer work project at the National Social Care Center, Riga affiliate, as part of Latvia’s “National Clean-up Day,” along with four soldiers from the 407th Civil Affairs Team stationed at Lielvārde Air Base, two personnel from the U.S. Embassy Office of Defense Cooperation, and members of Latvia’s National Guard (Zemessardze).
Once the estate of a German baroness, the facility and grounds of the care center were deeded to the Latvian government approximately 100 years ago and have since been utilized as one of five state-run children’s care centers in Latvia, serving juvenile patients with severe physical and mental disabilities. Today, 41 children make their home there, with nearly 120 staff providing for their round-the-clock needs.
“The grounds used to be a really great park area for the children,” said Nils Students, project organizer. “Unfortunately, during the Soviet era, they were over-constructed with concrete pathways and gazeboes.” A Latvian-American who grew up in New Jersey, Students now serves as Information Resource Director at the U.S. Embassy in Riga. He is also a reservist in Latvia’s National Guard.
“This is a fairly busy part of Riga, so these children can’t get too far out,” said Students. “It’s very important for them to get as much fresh air as possible, so having a good park area is necessary. Essentially, we want to return it to nature.”
The team of volunteers contributed to the effort by clearing rubble from the gazebos which, according to Students, had been condemned and razed about two weeks ago. Many of the workers were in Latvia to support a series of emergency response drills involving personnel from Latvia’s National Armed Forces and the Michigan National Guard at Lielvārde Air Base on April 25th.
Others, including Maj. Gen. Leonard Isabelle, Michigan Air National Guard commander, were in Latvia to recognize the 25th Anniversary of the Michigan National Guard’s bond with Latvia under the U.S. National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program (SPP). The Michigan-Latvia pairing was the SPP’s first, with discussions beginning in late 1992 before the partnership’s formalization on April 27, 1993. Since then, over 70 relationships have been established between the National Guard organizations of various U.S. states and partner nations around the globe.
“We’re happy to be here to help these children,” said Isabelle. “Michigan has a long-term relationship with Latvia and we do a lot of work with their National Armed Forces, but the public doesn’t often get to see that. This is a unique opportunity to connect on a human level with local civilians and give something to the community here as well.”
Several other dignitaries participated in the clean-up, including Jānis Reirs, Latvia’s Minister of Welfare, and Paul Poletes, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Riga.
“This is a big volunteer event, but it’s also very symbolic, because more and more our society is understanding the needs of children with disabilities,” said Reirs. “These children have not experienced as much as other children have at the ages that they are. For most of them, this is probably the first time they’ve seen this many people come to their establishment. Nothing is more symbolic of safety and future security than physical strength.”
Reirs explained that even after the end of the Soviet Union, state-run social care systems in Latvia were very closed to the public and only recently has there been a shift away from that paradigm. Although approximately 300 Latvian children are still cared for in state-run facilities, Latvia’s Ministry of Welfare has enacted a major de-institutionalization plan to move children in the social care system toward foster care, adoption, or daytime social care in some cases. Because many of the adopted children go to homes in America, cooperation with the U.S. Embassy is strong.
“I think it’s very important for the children to see the U.S. service personnel here,” said Reirs. “Every child benefits, of course, from having more contact with the outside world.”
Poletes agreed that the project was a major success, both for the center and the U.S. Embassy mission in Latvia, because it serves as a symbol of the shared interests and values between the two countries.
“We’re NATO allies, and to see people in uniforms of two countries working together tells the world that NATO is not here to occupy this country,” said Poletes. “We really are partners working together to secure Latvia, and together we can do some very good things.”