by Ryan Labadens, U.S. Navy Public Affairs

Even though the Naval Construction Battalion Center (NCBC) in Gulfport, Mississippi, is a U.S. Navy base, the joint-services spirit is very much alive and well, as highlighted by the joint-services food drive held here by Navy, Army and Air Force students at the Naval Construction Training Center (NCTC) from March 5 – April 5, 2021.

According to Cmdr. Paul Smith, NCTC command chaplain, this is the second annual NCTC Gulfport joint-services food drive held by the NCTC students, who gathered food for donations to four different food banks and soup kitchens in Gulfport and Biloxi, Mississippi, such as Feed My Sheep, the Salvation Army, the Handsboro United Methodist Church Food Pantry, and Gulf Coast Community Ministries.

This year’s food drive, dubbed “Operation Good Neighbor Food Drive,” grew in leaps and bounds compared to the one held last year. Students collected about 1,500 pounds of non-perishable food items in 2020; they beat that number more than 15 times over in 2021, delivering 23,285 pounds of non-perishable food items and water.

Smith said he initially got the idea for the student-led food drive after watching a local news report during the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. Local food banks were being overwhelmed by many new patrons who were out of work and having to go to food banks to help feed themselves and their families.

“Seeing something like this happening to families for the first time, it really made me feel like we could do something about this to help,” said Smith. “The local community is always so giving and supportive – they’re always saying ‘Thank you for your service’ and always doing things for us, so I felt like this was our turn to give back to them.” 

Navy, Army and Air Force students participated in some friendly service competition to see who could gather the most food for donations during the drive, said U.S. Air Force Airman Brooke Wingo and Airman 1st Class Michal Sharp, structural apprentice students at NCTC assigned to the 366th Training Squadron, Detachment 6, who helped organize the food drive. The Navy gathered 3,940 pounds of food items, while the Air Force collected 8,175 pounds, and the Army broke the five-digit mark, pulling together 11,170 pounds of food. The students gathered their donations in boxes at their barracks on base and made deliveries to the food banks each week during the drive.

“The chaplain said ‘Hey, you guys take charge and do what you’ve got to do,’ so we all brainstormed and came together as a team to see what we could do to make this happen,” said Sharp.

“Personally, I just think that it’s great to get all the branches involved on one project together. It helped us all work together to try and figure out what we can contribute,” said Wingo.

Smith said he hopes the food drive will continue for many years to come, even after the COVID-19 pandemic is a thing of the past.

“It serves a greater extra-COVID need, so even after COVID I think it’s a great thing to continue, because it’s more than just about donating food – it teaches us something about ourselves, that even though we wear this uniform, we are also a part of this community where we serve, and we should all strive to meet the needs of those around us.”

The Naval Construction Training Center (NCTC) is a joint-services school that teaches various construction skills to U.S. Navy, Army and Air Force students.