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Army brings Christmas to Fountain Elementary

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

First Army, the Ft. Gillem-based training unit, which was then under Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré, led the Army's Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.

It carried out a different mission on Friday.

Its soldiers delivered more than 1,000 gifts to students at Fountain Elementary School in Forest Park, during the fifth annual Fountain Elementary School Gift Project.

Phil Manson, command information officer, First Army, said the unit does educational programs throughout the year with Fountain Elementary, which is it's partner in education. However, the gift project is the most anticipated event of the year, for both First Army and the school, he said.

"The kids just go bonkers down there," said Manson. "The staff really comes out for the kids for this project. You wouldn't even know that the economy is affecting anybody."

Early in November, students at Fountain Elementary filled out Christmas-tree hangers including their name, age, and whether they were a boy or girl. Soldiers and civilians working at Ft. Gillem, in turn, adopted the students and bought age-appropriate gifts.

Several community groups assisted First Army in distributing gifts, including: The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service; the Greater Atlanta Chapter of the Association of the United States Army; the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club of Georgia; and Progressive Masonic Lodge 146, College Park.

Each of the more than 500 students at Fountain received at least one gift, ranging from bicycles, to remote-controlled cars, board games, and Easy-Bake ovens.

Dr. Tonya Mahone-Williams, principal of the school, said the project teaches students about the importance of giving.

"One of the things we're working [on] with our students this year is for them to do something for someone over the holidays ... to 'pay it forward,' if you will," said Mahone-Williams. "Seeing the example the First Army soldiers and civilians set makes it easier for us to explain and reinforce the concept of helping others during the holidays.

"We at Fountain feel very blessed, especially in these times of financial challenges facing many families, to have First Army so committed to our students," she said.

Three-star, Lt. Gen. Thomas G. Miller, commanding general of First Army, said the project "is one of the highlights of the year at First Army."

With Ft. Gillem scheduled to close in September of 2011, the unit will eventually relocate to Rock Island, Ill. Manson said First Army is working with its community partners to make sure the project continues long after the unit leaves.

"It's an economically challenged school, and for a lot of these kids, it may be the only Christmas present they get this year," said Manson. "We think it's important to do what we can do to help them along."