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    Soldiers support child

    Photo By Master Sgt. Ryan Matson | U.S. Army Soldiers cheer as Michal Skotardak, a student at the special education...... read more read more



    Story by Master Sgt. Ryan Matson 

    652nd Regional Support Group

    In a place where most people go to throw something away – a dumpster – Spc. Thomas Tkaczyk saw the opportunity to give something back.

    “When we first got here (to Powidz Air Base in Powidz, Poland), we moved into the tents that were just in front of the 181st (Area Support Medical Company), the Puerto-Rican unit that was here that we were replacing,” Tkaczyk, a mental health specialist from Elsie, Michigan, with the 1171st Medical Company Area Support, recalled.

    Soldiers from the 181st started giving and selling things they had picked up over almost a year mobilization to Poland to their incoming medical counterparts. The items ranged from simple things like socks to TVs and refrigerators.

    “So, they said, ‘yeah, as soon as we’re gone, just help yourself,’” Tkaczyk said. “I went out there and I just started collecting stuff…They were taking things to the dumpster so I went down to the dumpster and picked up a bunch of stuff.”

    At the time, in January, Tkaczyk had no idea about the program he was about to start. He collected everything – sheets and bedding, pillowcases, clothing, mattresses, bed sets, and everything in between.

    “We washed it and we agreed we were going to take it and anybody that wanted it could have it, starting with our unit,” Tkaczyk explained. “So, people in the unit got it. Later on, there were more units that were leaving. So, I figured, for one thing it’s kind of fun to gather this stuff and collect it and then give it to people in need. It got to be so much, and all the Soldiers had what they needed. I started having the problem of having bed mats and giving them away.”

    Tkaczyk started looking for a place to store the items he was picking up. He approached Chaplain (Capt.) Phillip Dow, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 286th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, with the Maine Army National Guard, who presided over the base chapel at Powidz.

    “He came to me and figured we’d start a spot in the back of the chapel,” Dow said. “We quickly filled up the back wall of the chapel with a bunch of the blue laundry bags.”

    Dow stored what he could in the chapel. He announced to incoming Soldiers the items that were available, and they took what they needed. But as more units came and left, Tkaczyk’s stockpile grew and grew. Dow secured some donation bins that were filled on almost a weekly basis.

    Then Tkaczyk got another idea.

    “I was talking to the Military Family Life Coordinator, Mary Lee King, and she said she was in Japan, working with Marines, and the Marines would go to an orphanage and just interact with the children and she said how great that was,” Tkaczyk said.

    King had happened to come across someone with a connection to a local orphanage, who contacted Eva Kruschka, the Mother Superior of the Congregation of the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Conception of the Holy Virgin Mary in nearby Gniezno, Poland.

    Kruschka runs a special educational center, formerly referred to as an orphanage, for special needs children. The 80 children at the center may be intellectually challenged or come from problematic family situations such as broken homes.

    Tkaczyk told his idea to his chain of command, who facilitated a meeting between Kruschka and the Soldiers outside the gate in May.

    “At that time, I think I had 50 loads, 50 laundry bags full of sheets and bedding, and they were happy to come out, and they did, and we just loaded them up!” Tkaczyk said.

    The donations have helped the center immensely, Kruschka said.

    “During the last meeting with the Soldiers, they got a lot of sports equipment, like balls for playing different sports. They use it on a daily basis. They stored everything in the school playground, and it is used basically every day, weather permitting,” Kruschka said.

    “At the very beginning, we received things like bedding, blankets, towels, quite practical things. What I decided to do about this was to distribute these things among the families, especially among the poorest ones who are in greatest need of assistance.”

    When the center has excess donations from the Soldiers, the items do not go to waste. They are distributed to additional Catholic charities throughout the area, and the program affects even more people in need.

    After the initial meeting, monthly meetings between Soldiers on base and children at the center were arranged. “Festivals” between the Soldiers and the children were organized, and the interaction between the two didn’t just benefit the children. Tkaczyk recalled one interaction in particular that was particularly impactful.

    “One Soldier in particular, I guess for lack of a better word you could call him a sourpuss, just not really into smiling,” Tkaczyk said with a smile. “He’s a really great guy, really smart, funny, but just doesn’t smile, just doesn’t show a lot of positive emotion. He went down to the orphanage and we’ve got pictures of him with a great big smile, laughing, just carrying on. You’re around all these kids and it’s just great. You spend an entire day with people that even though they might be kind of down and out, they’re not exactly down and out. They’ve got all this stuff to be happy about.”

    Perhaps the best thing about Tkaczyk’s program is the fact that it will continue on, even after the 1171st leaves Poland. Units from all around the base held a Fall Festival Oct. 19 in which the children from the center traveled to the base and spent an entire day with the Soldiers, participating in relay races, tug of war, games and face painting, and other activities.

    Maj. Olha Vandergriff, a public affairs officer from Nashville, Tennessee with the 652nd Regional Support Group out of Helena, Montana, was one of the unit representatives who organized her unit’s part of the festival. She set up a photo booth where children from the center were able to get a Polaroid photo wearing their choice of Halloween props, and a station where children and Soldiers put their handprints on a large banner to be given to the center later.

    “I’m originally from the Ukraine and I moved to the United States in 2002, so I can kind of relate to being a kid and not really knowing what’s going on, not having a close family near you,” Vandergriff said.

    “I really wanted to make sure that these kids felt welcomed to be part of us. They’re seeing us in their towns and in their cities and I just wanted them to get to know us.”

    Now every day, Soldiers from the 652nd travel around the base, collecting the donations from the bins, taking them to the laundry facility and getting them cleaned, then distributing them to various locations around the base where Soldiers can get items they need.

    Tkaczyk, who also works as a mental health counselor in the civilian sector, said helping people has always been a passion of his.

    “I guess you’d say it’s kind of my thing,” he said.

    Tkaczyk originally set out to help his fellow Soldiers but is pleased the effect his program has had on the local community.

    “Hopefully the stuff that they’re getting is helpful,” Tkaczyk said. “The sheets and the blankets, the little bit of clothing – because it’s mostly adult clothing – but anything they’re getting is helping them to live a better life and that’s the most important thing.”



    Date Taken: 10.19.2019
    Date Posted: 10.29.2019 04:37
    Story ID: 349533
    Location: POWIDZ, PL 
    Hometown: ELSIE, MI, US

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