News: Humanitarian efforts deliver big results
Story by Senior Airman Mindy Bloem
KIRKUK, Iraq - Most American parents know the drudgery of taking their children's lengthy school supply list to the store and filling a shopping cart full of paper, pencils and much more.
Unfortunately, most Iraqi parents can't afford to do that for their children. That is where the Airmen and Soldiers of Kirkuk Regional Air Base come into play.
Operation Soccer Ball and Operation School Supplies are two separate programs implemented here during past rotations and continue to occur due to the support of its Airmen volunteers.
The members of these operations rely on donations from patrons back in the States who send their contributions to the base.
Once received, members of the Rising Four organize the soccer balls, and other Airmen volunteers go to the chapel to organize the school supplies for each visit.
"I enjoy volunteering for Operation School Supplies because I know that I am contributing to part of the mission here," said Capt. Jennifer Smith, 506th Expeditionary Medical Squadron. "Plus, since I am a mother of an eight year old son and know how excited children get when something is given to them, it makes me happy to know that when the children get these items, they will have a smile on their face."
Another chapel volunteer for Operation School Supplies, Tech. Sgt. Patrick Brodigan, 506th Expeditionary Operation Support Squadron combat weather team, feels that same desire to participate.
"When I found out that I was coming to Iraq, I wanted to do more than just 'put in my time.' I started looking for volunteer opportunities and Operation School Supplies seemed like a great program. I was interested in doing something that affected the community in a positive way, reaffirming that we are here to help," he said.
Senior Airman Samantha Robertson, 506th Expeditionary Communication Squadron and president of the Rising Four Club, recalls her visit downtown, delivering the soccer balls and school supplies.
"It was amazing to see how poorly these kids live, and how happy they were to receive this simple token," she said. "The look in the children's eyes is so rewarding."
These operations have occurred in several provinces throughout the local area. A school is usually chosen in relation to its proximity to a particular Army mission happening at the time. Once the Army confirms what school they can visit on a certain day and the number of seats available in the vehicles, the Air Force volunteers are selected.
The base commander then chooses those who have donated the most time volunteering.
"I like the fact the Airmen who work tirelessly, many of them 12 to 15 hours a day, go to the chapel and work another four to five hours filling school supplies," said Col. Leonard Dick, 506th Air Expeditionary Group commander. "This program the Airmen the opportunity to see the fruits of their labor in building up all of these school supplies. They now are the ones who personally get to deliver the school supplies to the children of Iraq. It's a very impressive when you go to these schools and get to see the looks on their faces. I don't think these children normally get a lot of presents."
The commander said conditions at some schools can be very austere, with mud walls and interiors that are often exposed to the elements.
"In general some of the buildings aren't that great," Dick said. "However, their main issue is they just don't have supplies for the children. Even if they have good teachers, they just don't have the supplies. We've never gone anywhere where the teachers weren't ecstatic to receive this assistance."
Operation School Supplies seems to help with their education in more ways than one.
"What really impresses the children is when we take female Airmen downtown," Dick said. "They respond a lot more to the females, and they get to see it doesn't make a difference what sex you are. It's based on your competence. They get to see a female NCO in charge of the situation, and it has a positive effect especially on the little girls. They realize there's potentially more to their lives than what has been laid out previously for them."
Robertson believes these operations are fostering bonds that won't soon be broken.
"This is good because we are building future ties," she said. "These kids are Iraq's future leaders. In the future, they will look back and think, 'those Americans helped us when we were kids.' We are making future allies."
Colonel Dick said that giving the children these much needed resources directly is what really pays off in the long run.
"The only way you have an impression of Americans that's really important and long lasting is through direct contact with them," the commander said. "Their contacts with Americans in these situations are with Americans bringing soccer balls and school supplies. That is what will stay with that child into adulthood. In many ways, it's more important than some reconstruction projects we're doing because the effect on the children will last much longer than some project. It will last a lifetime."