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Evergreen Academy sends Iraqi students the keys to success

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By Stephen Knapp

Anyone who thinks laboring in service of the less fortunate is just too tedious, or just too time-consuming, just isn’t doing it right. The two dozen generous hearts gathered in Evergreen Academy’s cheery multi-purpose room on Wednesday evening, Aug. 13, on the other hand, knew just how to do it.

For starters, good works are best done as a family, which is why there were as many little hands on hand as big ones. And it helps a lot if the helpers can muster a degree of personal empathy for those they wish to help. Last Wednesday, the helped were Iraqi schoolchildren, and that’s all the motivation the helpers needed.

“It would be hard to go to school in Iraq,” said 10-year-old Lauren, earnestly. “They have so many grades in one class, and not enough teachers. You could have the same teacher your whole life,” she added, clearly appalled at the prospect.

Granted, there’s nothing Lauren can do about Iraq’s teacher shortage — at least no time soon — but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing she can do.

“In Iraq, they don’t have enough money for school supplies,” she said. “I want to help them get some.”

And that’s exactly what Lauren did, thanks to Conifer resident Jana Dombrowski and Operation Knapsack, a distinctively local effort Dombrowski launched last spring with the very good intention of providing Iraqi children the basic tools of education. She got the idea after a friend — a civilian reconstruction consultant based in Babil Province — sent her an e-mail detailing the many challenges faced by schoolchildren in Al-Hillah, an ancient city of some 370,000 souls straddling the storied Euphrates River in central Iraq. Where Evergreen Academy averages less than a dozen kids per teacher, classrooms in Al-Hillah routinely squeeze in 60 or more. While Dombrowski’s children spend schooldays in peaceful security, their Iraqi counterparts run a significant risk just walking to classes each morning. And, more to the point, in America, a lifetime-supply of pencils and paper is only as far as the nearest Wal-Mart.

“The U.S. military has rebuilt all the schools, but the kids still don’t have any supplies,” said Dombrowski, an Evergreen Academy mom with two enrolled and one to go. “The contrasts were almost more than I could bear. I thought, ‘We can certainly pray for them, but there must more we can do.’ My friend said he was working on getting more school supplies shipped in, and I figured that was something I could do more easily on my end.”

But if getting Operation Knapsack off the ground hasn’t necessarily been easy, Dombrowski did catch a few breaks along the way, starting with timely assist from Evergreen Academy’s headmaster.

“Chris Lierheimer was incredibly generous to let us create the organization under the auspices of Evergreen Academy,” Dombrowski said. “It works because we’re still serving an educational purpose. It would have taken me six to nine months to set up a nonprofit from scratch, and I didn’t feel like we had that kind of time.”

With Knapsack’s official status established, the next step was shopping, plain and simple.

“I found a good deal on 200 backpacks from an online wholesaler, and I got most of the supplies at Wal-Mart. The beauty of Operation Knapsack is that I can send a backpack filled with all the school supplies an Iraqi kid needs for a donation of just $30. And that includes postage.”

Finally, all that scholastic booty had to be sorted into knapsack-sized portions and inserted into child-sized knapsacks, which brings us to one more useful tip for hosting a successful charitable enterprise: Bribery works. Dividing the volunteers into teams, Dombrowski dangled the promise of valuable prizes before them, and every little eye in the room turn bright green. At her word, the race was on.

On one side of the room were rows of utility tables crowded with stacks of notebooks, boxes of erasers, and piles of snub-nosed scissors arrayed alongside heaping helpings of just about every other classroom contrivance imaginable. On the other side, those same items were arranged on the floor where younger volunteers — by their natures much closer to the ground — could get at them easily. The action was fast and furious on both ends, but if the grown-ups took up their commission with predictable and altogether uninteresting competence, the real show was down low.

After collecting the prescribed articles in a tidy plastic pouch, the kids were instructed to have their work checked by a big person tasked to that function, then slip the whole kit and caboodle into a knapsack and lay their completed work in neat rows. How they went about their simple assignment individually was a study in divergent styles.

Little Gracie took to the job with the kind of solemn concentration that only a 7-year-old can, determinedly dragging her growing inventory from one station to the next and carefully arranging and re-arranging the supplies at every stop. A towheaded 6-year-old named Daniel, on the other hand, seemed to approach the job like a scavenger hunt, selecting supplies apparently at random and casually crisscrossing the room several times per completed knapsack. Then there was Anna Laura, a thoughtful girl of 5 and budding consumer, who couldn’t resist sitting down with every eraser, pen and gluestick she picked up, inspecting it closely, admiring its brand-new perfection, and putting it through some imaginary paces before contentedly depositing it in her bag. She may not have been the fastest one on the floor, but she probably got the most personal satisfaction out of the exercise.

Over at the tables, 15-year-old Taylor Liprando worked her way down the rows, assembling classroom care packages with genuine enthusiasm. While her evening’s contribution to the cause was certainly appreciated, it’s only the tip of an exceedingly generous iceberg. It seems that Taylor, an Evergreen Academy alumnus looking forward to her junior year at Evergreen High School, is planning a serious “Sweet 16” soiree in a couple weeks’ time and, with about 150 names on the guest list, stands to make a sizable haul. And make no mistake — she will. Only not for herself.

“There’s not really anything I need, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to support a worthy cause,” explained Taylor, rummaging in a box of No. 2 Ticonderogas. “Instead of getting lots of presents I’ll never use, I’ve asked everybody to make a $30 donation to Operation Knapsack.”

Back on the carpet, and imbued with a pure Olympian spirit, young Lauren took the gold, hands down. Within an area maybe 25 feet on a side, she went everywhere at a dead run. Constantly breathless, purposeful and clearly having the time of her life, she buried the competition by filling no fewer than 15 knapsacks in less than 45 minutes, and probably dashed close to half a mile in the process.

As quickly as it had begun, the job was done, and 200 backpacks, 200 gestures of goodwill, 200 sets of tools for a better future were ready for delivery to 200 children who desperately need them.

Considering her heroic effort, Lauren deserved a prize, and she got one — a Sonic gift card, which doesn’t last as long as a medal, but tastes a lot better. Then again, everybody who turned out at Evergreen Academy to help strangers in trouble deserved a prize, so they all got Sonic gift cards of their own. Anna Laura inspected hers closely, admired its shiny perfection, and announced that such a tempting treasure should be redeemed before the sun went down — a position shared by no few of her classmates.

Anna Laura loves her school, loves her schoolroom, loves her schoolbooks, loves her schoolteacher and, as has been seen, dearly loves her school supplies. That children in a faraway land should have to do without is, to Anna Laura, intolerable.

“My favorite things are rulers,” she said, regarding the one in her hand. “I think the kids in Iraq need rulers.”

And what will the kids in Iraq do with the rulers they get from Operation Knapsack? Anna Laura didn’t even have to think about it.

“They’ll make straight lines,” she declared. “That’s what I do.”

To learn more about Operation Knapsack, visit www.operationknapsack.com.