The children were so happy to see the soldiers who drove all this way to see them. They rarely have visitors up here, much less the Americans.
Since arriving in Kosovo in September, several soldiers from KFOR 16 have volunteered their time to help institutions around Kosovo to provide a better environment for children to grow up. No one told these soldiers that they need to be a part of this, or that they need to it. These soldiers are doing it because they want to.
Sgt. 1st Class Sherry Mack is a lab technician deployed to Kosovo as part of the Task Force Medical. Taking time away from her normal day-to-day duties, Mack decided to volunteer her free time to help deliver linens, hats and gloves to children at a youth house and an orphanage.
“It is a great feeling to know that you are making a difference here,” said Mack. “We are more than 5000 miles from home, and seeing the happiness of the kids, this kind of makes it worth it.”
Maj. Ewell Sturgis III is in charge of the volunteer effort going out in the community. He said that the desire to serve the communities is not uncommon to National Guard soldiers. They want to reach out into the communities and help these people and they want to find out how to best help people. “We are all National Guard, reservist soldiers,” said Maj. Sturgis. “Regardless of what we do for the guard, in this little bit of time that we volunteer, we can do something we have been doing forever, helping our friends and neighbors. We all joined the National Guard for that reason, to help our neighbors, and here we are, helping our neighbors.”
Deployed soldiers often receive items in care packages that they will never use, and purchase things they don’t plan on taking home with them. For the last five years, each time a rotation is preparing to leave, contractors set up barrels at the laundry points where items to be donated are collected. It is then up to the incoming rotation to find a destination for these donated items. KFOR 15 left over 200 bags of linens and blankets to be handed out to areas of need. Operation Balkans, Family and Friends is the KFOR 16 program that aims to help make a difference by taking clean, unused items and distributing them to people in need.
Sturgis met with the Kosovo Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare when he took responsibility for developing a program to identify ways that Multinational Battle Group East can most effectively assist, both Kosovo Serbians and Albanians.
Sturgis said that this initiative is based off his guidance from Col. Waymon B. Storey. The MNBG-E Commander asked him to help support the programs that are trying to provide a safer environment for children. Sturgis partners with a variety of international organizations, non-governmental organizations and other agencies that are working to improve the environment and welfare of Kosovo to accomplish this task. Providing children and adults in need of assistance with clean sheets and linen helps take the burden off of the state. Items like toothbrushes, soaps, books, school supplies and clothing are desperately needed in some areas.
“We are supporting the institutions of Kosovo with the underlying note of our mandate to provide a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement,” said Sturgis. “It is a volunteer effort to help heal the wounds of a decades old war, and to bring together the Kosovo Albanians and the Kosovo Serbians as a whole united Kosovo.“
It is widely believed that you can cure the ills of a world if you just start in the right place. Sturgis and his team of volunteers want to help support hospitals, orphanages, and schools. In their program plans, OP BFF hopes to help at least 175 people. But, as he said, if he can help one child, he will count this mission as a success.
Biljana Stanojevic is the manager of a center for disabled children in Gracanica. She has been working at the center for 11 years , and has been director for the last two. Stanojeciv said that the last time soldiers came to visit was a few years ago when Swedish and Bulgarian soldiers came to bring food and clothing. The donations from today’s visit will help the children here for some time. She said that aside from the necessary donations, the children at the center most appreciate the visit itself. To have American soldiers show up at their doorstep, willing to talk with the workers and with the children, meant more to Stanojevic and the children there.
“Thank God there are people and organizations that want to help us” she said. “These children first came here, from the mental institution. They were little, they were helpless. We just started to help them, one child after another. It is a feeling you get inside of you that makes you want to help them. As we started to work with them, we started to love them, and as we worked with them more, our love for them grew. We have been here with the children since they were small, and we know everything about them, more than they may even know about themselves.”
Sturgis hopes that OP BFF will be able to help many people throughout Kosovo, and that KFOR 16 will be able to leave a positive impact on the cities and neighborhoods they are able to reach. Even if they only help one child, he said, he is happy to see the soldier’s enthusiasm at being out in the community and helping people in their day-to-day-activities.