Saturday, November 03, 2007

School to School

This week we witnessed a beautiful expression of childlike hope. The students at Langston Chapel Elementary School, with the help of their parents and teachers, had collected a wide variety and large number of school supplies to share with the children of Iraq. The list of items collected is impressive: writing paper, construction paper, notebooks, pencils, color pencils, erasers, sharpeners, pens, crayons, markers, scissors, glue, and most importantly . . . soccer balls. Mrs. Cindy Bozeman informed me that others, such as Steve Champion of Wal-Mart (picture in the previous post), were inspired by their initiative and provided similar donations. When I expressed concern for the cost of shipping these supplies to us in Iraq, Mrs. Bozeman assured me that they had a plan. As it turns out, the children were involved in a "Pennies for Postage" fundraising drive, the success of which covered the postage of the countless supplies they shipped to me. Others--such the Sparta Presbyterian Church in New Jersey, and Elisabeth Germann and the Ottawa Hills Mom's Club in Ohio--had heard about this initiative and provided similar supplies including books and lots of beannie babies. We were well stocked!

Distributing school supplies to students at area elementary schools is something Sheikh Abdullah and I have been discussing. As a religious leader, Sheikh Abdullah is in an ideal position to help identify area schools that would benefit most. It has long been my conviction that as rewarding as it might be for religious leaders to talk and get to know one another, the ultimate expression of dialogue is to work together. This is also LTC Silverman, my commander's, intent and the guidance I've received from our leaders at both brigade and division levels. When he heard of our plans, 1LT Conley quickly submitted a contract for $26,000 of additional school supplies to complement this initiative. Once Sheikh Abdullah had helped us identify the schools, 1LTs Conely and Davies coordinated the logistics of the distribution with the Iraqi Police. The support that swelled behind this effort was stunning. It amazed me to see the idea of children and teachers attract the attention of both American and Iraqi military and police.

At each of the two schools where we distributed supplies we first met with the headmaster or principal. We were expected at these schools, but they were surprised to learn many of the supplies were collected by elementary students in the U.S. When we arrived at the first school they were between the first and second sessions of the day (many schools have three sessions in order to accommodate the need), so there were both boy and girl students. We wanted to distribute a few of the items directly to the students but allow the teachers to distribute the majority of the items at their discretion. Not only were Sheikhs Heiss and Abdullah helping to distribute supplies, but so were some of our Soldiers and many of the Iraqi Police. It began in a very orderly manner, but it gradually became crazy, and when we started to hand out some of the candy we had on hand it resulted in a gleeful Pandemonium. Even the teachers seemed to enjoy the chaos. Smiles were everywhere. The mood became noticeably desperate, however, when we brought out the soccer balls. We in the United States simply cannot understand the passion other nations have for soccer--period. There is no equivalent. Wanting to protect the use of these soccer balls for as long as possible, I identified the gym teacher and invited him to use a permanent marker and label the balls property of the school. Even the Iraqi police were envious of the colorful, stitched soccer balls sent by Langston Chapel Elementary School.

The second school we visited had only girl students. Here the principal and all the teachers were women, and much like I have observed in my own denomination, women are generally more organized and orderly. The girls and young women formed lines in which they received a few items. The littlest things seemed to overwhelm them with gratitude. There was a group of boys who were hanging around from the previous session who were not part of the distribution; LTC Silverman found a way to include them.

As we did at the first school, I gave the principal pictures of Mrs. Bozeman's kindergarten class and letters written by her and other LCES teachers' students to the Iraqi students. The principal shared with us that their school had been hit by a mortar and attacked by a car bomb just a year ago, killing some and wounding many. She contrasted those events with what we were doing. She said she looks forward to communicating her appreciation to those teachers who helped their students better learn the virtue of giving. I shared the opinion that if we (the various leaders in her office) were the good people we hoped we were it was primarily because we had good parents and good teachers. One of the interpreters shared with me that there is a belief within Islam that when one makes a child happy, one makes an angel happy. He concluded, "today there are many happy angels".

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