Part 4 of 4: This four-part series offers a look inside a recent subject matter expert exchange conducted by the Missouri National Guard's State Partnership Program. The program focuses on exchanging skill sets and ideas between the Show-Me State and Panama and establishing excellent relations between the Missouri National Guard and Panamanian Public Forces.
Representatives from the Missouri National Guard's State Partnership Program met with members of the Panama City Lions Club at the American embassy in Panama City on May 16 to discuss establishing a relationship between the Panama group and their counterparts in Missouri. As part of its mission, the State Partnership program links up civic organizations in Panama and Missouri to better communities in both areas. (Missouri National Guard photo by 1st Lt. John Quin/RELEASED)
By 1st Lt. John Quin
PANAMA CITY, Panama - The Missouri National Guard's State Partnership Program met with representatives from civic groups in Panama City this month in an effort to strengthen ties between the U.S. and Panama.
Although the National Guard Bureau's State Partnership Program primary mission is to work with allied defense forces, the program has another mission: connecting civilian groups in both countries, said 1st Lt. Todd Cantwell.
"One of our jobs as a State Partnership Program is to bring those entities together, introduce them to each other, and help them establish those long-lasting relationships," Cantwell said. "After that, we're hands-off, and they'll begin coordinating among themselves, whether it's for the benefit of Panama or Missouri."
Relationships don't spring up magically overnight, said Maj. Juan Carlos Valencia, the Missouri National Guard's bilateral affairs officer at the U.S. embassy in Panama.
"These relationships take years to develop," Valencia said. "And they take years of persistent leadership."
Valencia's predecessor, Capt. Jonathan Holem, helped pair Rotary District 6080 in Missouri and Rotary District 4240 in Panama, Honduras, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The districts' first joint project was to collect and distribute 300 baby wellness kits - items for newborns and their mothers - to needy areas in Panama.
"It was a great start," said Vicente Pascual, of District 4240. "When we distributed the kits, we tried to make the best impact with them, and donated them to hospitals in six of the nine provinces. I recently saw a mother carrying one of the bags."
The Rotary partnership continues to focus on small and medium-scale projects, Pascual said. A subsequent project involved bringing water pumps and purification systems to remote regions in Panama, Valencia said.
"Panama, like every other country in Latin America, needs potable water in areas where new communities spring up," Valencia said. “Local and national organizations get involved with these communities. If they require assistance, they can request it from Missouri via the U.S. Embassy."
There was an especially great need in the Panama's Darien Province, located in the eastern part of the country.
"There are a lot of highlands, a lot of rain and 60 percent of province is national parks," Pascual said. "There is a lot of jungle and rivers. Their main transportation is by small wooden kayaks. There is no electricity and no clean water in very remote villages."
Working with the State Partnership Program, the embassy, Panamanian National Forces and the U.S. Army Reserve civil affairs team, Pascual said that situation can improve drastically.
The projects are supported by a number of governmental and non-governmental agencies, said James Wieberg, of District 6080. The Missouri National Guard program was instrumental in coordinating with the Air Force and Navy to get materials into Panama, and then worked with U.S. Army civil affairs Soldiers at the embassy to help place the pumps in needy areas. Later, as part of a subject matter exchange, engineers from the Missouri National Guard traveled to Panama to instruct locals on how to use and maintain the systems.
“The gentleman who inspected our last shipment for the Department of Defense asked if I was aware of how many people in high places had a hand in what we were doing,” Wieberg said. “I simply responded, no, I was not aware but for all of that we are grateful because we did none of this for ourselves. The motto of Rotarians everywhere is ‘service above self.’”
Building on the success of the Rotary relationship, the Missouri State Partnership Program is working with other nongovernmental organizations and civic clubs to help in the region.
In May, Valencia and Holem were working on establishing a relationship with the Lion's Club. The local chapter is interested in getting in touch with their counterparts in Missouri.
The group is hard at work on a project in the community of Cerro Patacon, an underprivileged area settled by squatters. The Panamanian government has been aiding locals through building roads and schools and improving the area’s infrastructure. After a fire at a nearby landfill in March, the Lion's Club wanted to help as well. A church had been operating a soup kitchen and shelter in the area, for which the club is hoping to build a structure.
"They've already planted fruit trees so families can pick fruit to eat," Valencia said. "They have blueprints for the building and did a ground survey on for the foundation. They're authorized to build, now they just need help with funding and materials."
Valencia believes that is possible through the Missouri National Guard State Partnership Program.
"If we can get them connected to a good Lion's Club in Missouri, they can help a lot," Valencia said.
With help from Pascual and the Rotary district, the State Partnership Program recently connected with the Panama Air Club. The pair said they see many similarities between the Air Club and the Civil Air Patrol.
The club has about 40 members and is in the process of expanding, said club vice president Henry Stec. Many of the club's members are avid flyers who want to mirror the efforts of Missouri's Civil Air Patrol, which under Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Steve Danner has seen a greatly expanded role in state emergency missions.
"There's a strong desire there - our members know about the Civil Air Patrol," Stec said. "Now is a good time for us to get started."
As those relationships begin are built, the Rotarians are still going strong, Wieberg said.
“We are preparing to send 28 pallets of water purification systems, clothing and school supplies and 35 more personal energy transportation vehicles through a humanitarian program sponsored by the Department of Defense,” Wieberg said. “Neither shipment would have been possible without the support of the Adjutant General and the various Missouri Guard members.”
Although building such relationships takes a lot of work, the end result is worth the sweat, said Holem.
"Every little thing you can do for people who have nothing is a blessing," Holem said. "It totally changes the quality of life for people."
The Missouri National Guard's State Partnership Program met with members of Rotary District 4240 and the Panama Air Club to discuss possible joint projects with their counterparts in Missouri during a subject matter exchange at the American embassy in Panama City on May 16. As part of the State Partnership Program's mission, Soldiers and Airmen work to link up civic organizations in Panama and Missouri to help communities in both areas. (Missouri National Guard photo by 1st Lt. John Quin/RELEASED)
Missouri National Guard Capt. Jonathan Holem (right) speaks with Henry Stec, vice president of the Panama Air Club, at the American embassy in Panama on May 16. The Missouri National Guard State Partnership program routinely works with civic organizations to strengthen ties between the Show-Me State and Panama. (Missouri National Guard photo by 1st Lt. John Quin/RELEASED