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Petty Officer 1st Class Neal King.
Petty Officer 1st Class Neal King. (Courtesy of U.S Navy)

NAPLES, Italy — It’s not uncommon for people to adopt children from orphanages.

But Petty Officer 1st Class Neal King went beyond that. He adopted a whole orphanage.

King, of the Naples-based Military Sealift Command Europe headquarters, visits the Piccola di Casa Nazareth orphanage in nearby Lago Patria where he is a surrogate “father” to its 31 children.

But none of the children will be moving to King’s apartment in the Gricignano base housing area, because Piccola di Casa Nazareth isn’t what many in the United States would consider a normal orphanage.

“The stereotype, in my brain, was that they’re children without parents,” he said of the orphanage’s 30 girls and one boy who range from 5 to 12 years old. Instead, he found that many do have parents.

“Some kids may have mothers and fathers, but due to issues such as finances … they spend the majority of the time at orphanages,” the Birmingham, Ala., native said.

It’s during those times, when the children are at the orphanage, that King helps out.

In early January, he set up a post-holiday pizza party for the youngsters, complete with gifts either donated by MSC personnel or bought by him and his wife, Sara.

“My wife and I have a soft spot for children,” he said. “The reaction of the kids’ faces when they get the pizza or gifts is amazing.”

King is looking to help the orphanage with everything from replacing its old computer to holding typical American barbecues.

“This is an ongoing ‘adventure’ with the orphanage,” he said. “As soon as the weather complies, we’ll hold picnics at Carney Park [base recreation facility] … and … just spend time with them.”

King will balance his time at the orphanage with time spent with his wife and two daughters, 18-month-old Madison and 2-month-old Emma.

The Kings met and married while he was stationed at Naval Submarine Base Groton, Conn. Sara King is from Providence, R.I. While in Groton, they worked with Special Olympics.

“My wife’s cousin has Down syndrome,” he said. “We used to help out as much as possible with the Special Olympics. My wife’s family’s been doing it for about 20 years.”

The couple worked with Special Olympics for two years and stopped only when they transferred to Italy in May. Their volunteering spirit followed them.

“I think this is perfectly in character with him and his family to do something like this,” said friend and co-worker Petty Officer 2nd Class Grady McJunkin. “I know both he and his wife are great people.”

McJunkin added that King’s volunteerism is rubbing off on other Americans.

“Here in the Naples area, a lot of people like to volunteer, but they don’t know how to find it and do it,” he said. “People see these things and he’ll have more volunteers.”

King credits his wife’s family with his desire to give back to the community.

“I think it’s because my wife and I are accustomed to helping with the Special Olympics,” King said. “This is a chance to give a little back to the community, to those who may not be accustomed to American help or understand much about what’s outside their local area.

“I know that they feel better knowing someone cares.”

The Kings’ desire to help isn’t limited to the Italian community. When King returns from a temporary assignment, he’ll be reading to children at the base housing area library and his wife will help kids learn arts and crafts.

“I’m a life-long tennis player,” King added. “I want to see if they need help with the boys and girls teams in the spring. This also gives me a chance to play.

“I just want to give a little back. It just feels good.”

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