Returning to its Norfolk, Va. homeport following a five-and-half month deployment, the United States Navy general-purpose amphibious assault ship USS Saipan (LHA-2) spent 2001 assisting the local community. Upon entering the Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY) in Portsmouth, Va. in mid-February for a 13-month long Complex Overhaul maintenance period, Saipan’s command leadership seized this rare opportunity to participate in community outreach. Since shipyard and civilian contractors would perform most of the work, Saipan’ s crew had more time than usual for volunteer community activities.
In March, the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice requested assistance renovating one of its private provider correctional facilities – the USS Justice (YP-678), a former U.S. Navy Yard Patrol training boat. Used by the Tidewater Environmental Program (TEP) since 1996 as an “alternative sentencing” program for non-violent male juvenile offenders ages 16-19 requiring substance abuse treatment, Justice serves as a 17-bed treatment facility and classroom for wayward teens. Along with substance abuse counseling, TEP teaches its “cadets” discipline, seamanship, first aid, CPR, marine science, and most importantly offers a chance to obtain the GED, of which 90% TEP participants attain.
Operated by Associated Marine Institutes, Justice is located in downtown Norfolk on the piers at the Nautilus National Maritime Center, a 120,000 square-foot science and technology center exploring the power of the sea. Regretfully, Justice was suffering from weather corrosion. Adding to this unsightly dilemma, the Nautilus’ pier was soon to unveil its newest tourist attraction, the battleship USS Wisconsin (BB-64). For two weeks, Sailors from Saipan’ s Deck Department, specially skilled in shipboard preservation, volunteered over 500 man-hours sanding, painting and polishing the 80-foot vessel, completing work one day before Wisconsin’s grand opening, saving TEP precious time and money.
During this same time, Saipan learned of Brighton Elementary School. Located just blocks from NNSY, the 45-year-old school had fallen into disrepair. Comprised mostly of students from low-income and minority families, the ravages of time and a 350-body student population had taken its toll. Its electrical wiring was not up to standard and the facility’s overall appearance detracted from good learning. Unfortunately, Brighton did not have funding for necessary repairs. When Saipan’ s command chaplain visited Brighton to assess the needs, he was astonished to see conditions as bad as those in poor European countries.
Immediately, Saipan sprang into action, organizing volunteers and coordinating working parties. During Brighton’s spring break, over 160 Saipan volunteers spent numerous hours making repairs using donated materials. The five-day effort resulted in renovations worth approximately $25,000. The following week, Saipan officially “adopted” Brighton and immediately established an educational partnership, with 20 crewmembers regularly serving as tutors and teacher’s aides. Over the summer, volunteers returned for more extensive renovation work. Through media coverage of Saipan’ s on-going partnership, the local community learned of Brighton’s needs, spurring additional volunteerism. For Saipan’s efforts, the City of Portsmouth designated December 2001 as “USS Saipan Month.”