News: Serving Up success
Story by Sgt. Angela Parady
CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo - Soldiers from Alpha Company, 2/149th Lift Company based in Eastover, S.C., are just one example of selfless service, a core army value that encourages soldiers to think beyond themselves and make the extra effort to help others.
Every Sunday morning, in one of the large aviation hangars here at Camp Bondsteel, they offer an alternative to the everyday chow hall breakfast. Volunteers take orders, serve customers, and make every kind of waffle imaginable in a makeshift kitchen.
Capt. Jon Strickland, the commander of the 2/149th said that the “Waffle House” program started with Kosovo Force 11. He volunteered there during his first deployment to Kosovo with KFOR 12. Two years later, he returned to Kosovo as a company commander and encouraged his team to get involved with the Waffle House.
Nearly 250 soldiers, civilians and contractors line up each weekend to get a taste of the “Big Duke”, the “Elvis” or other delectable waffles. Donations are collected in exchange for the treats. Those donations are used to pay for select local high school students in Kosovo to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language. Over 8,500 colleges and universities in more than 130 countries accept the results from the TOEFL exam when going through the admissions process. For these students, this test means the opportunity to attend an English speaking school outside of Kosovo.
First Lt. Jeff Hodish is a familiar face behind the waffle iron on Sunday mornings. He joked about having to wake up early to work on a day off, but said it is worth it.
“There is the whole satisfaction of helping someone else out,” he said. “Someone who otherwise couldn’t afford to take the test. It is a good feeling to volunteer.”
Hodish said the money raised through the donations pays for the exam itself, the textbooks and study guides, and transportation of the students from Ferizaj to Pristina, where the test is held. If there is money left over at the end of the rotation, the rest is donated to a local orphanage.
First Lt. Sean Brookshire, a Black Hawk pilot from Lexington, S.C., goes to Ferizaj twice a week and teaches the students who were selected for the program for two hours each visit.
“They come in between school hours, and we teach them, prepare them for the test,” he said. “We use the book a lot to help guide them in the right direction, help teach them English. It really is just like any other high school class.”
Strickland said that at the beginning of the rotation they administered an entrance exam for the 100 students that KFOR 15 had already interviewed for eligibility to the program. They took the 25 students who scored the highest and started working vigorously with them to prepare for this exam.
Brookshire said that this program has helped him learn more about Kosovo and by working so closely with the students; he has come to know more about the people who live here.
“The kids here are just like kids anywhere else, just a bunch of high schoolers, having fun, learning, gossiping,” said Brookshire. “It’s fun, being able to see them grow throughout the course. But I have also learned that teaching is more about preparation, and what you put into it. As long as you care about the kids, and you want them to do well on the test, you can teach it.”
From the time the soldiers started working with the students to the day of the big exam on April 6, eight students had to be removed from the course for lack of attendance. Brookshire said that was one of the biggest challenges he faced during the course, having to make that decision.
“We can’t put all our resources into someone who isn’t putting the effort into the class. That excess could go to an orphanage or another local charity that could use the funds,” he said. “That’s the hardest part. You want so badly for all of them to succeed, but then you realize, as time goes on, you have to let some of them go. If they aren’t putting in the effort, and they won’t pass.”
On the other hand, the best part, has been working with the kids. The value of selfless service encourages going the extra distance to see how one can add to the area around them. As KFOR supports the NATO peacekeeping mission here, they also support the development of professional, democratic and multi-ethnic security structures within the country. Clearing the path to more educational opportunities for Kosovo’s youth, the Waffle House Program gives hope to a promising future generation of new professionals.
“At the beginning of the year, we talked to a lot of the students and asked them what they hoped to get out of this program,” said Brookshire. “Some of them wanted to better their English. Some want to go to a university outside of Kosovo and learn a trade to bring back here. Some just want to see the world.”
Brookshire said that this program has been the highlight of his deployment so far. As pilots, these soldiers don’t always get the opportunity to interact with the community around them. They fly everywhere and see everything, but they always return to Camp Bondsteel at the end of the mission.
“It’s great to get out and see and meet the faces,” he said. “A lot of us don’t get to go out and meet with the locals. But these kids really are appreciative of everything we do and why we are here.”
Hodish, a native of Columbia, S.C., volunteers his free time every Sunday to stand in the hot makeshift kitchen flipping waffles to order. He said some days are more difficult than others, getting up knowing you are going to be standing for six hours, standing around, making batter and cleaning, but in the end its worth it. Not only are they helping raise funds for this program, but they are helping the Soldiers escape a bit.
“Instead of everything being so institutionalized, we have the option to go get a waffle, something they could go get 24 hours a day back home,” he said. “It helps with morale. A lot of people have said that they enjoy coming here, because it gives them a break from the everyday.”