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By Heather World
Who would want to miss recess to pack up a bunch of pencils and notebooks? It sounds like a dull proposition, but this spring a dozen fourth- and fifth-grade students at Alvarado School gathered to do just that.
After counting 1,740 pencils, 1,000 crayons, 163 notebooks, and 28 glue sticks, the students packed the supplies tightly into boxes for a 7,000-mile journey to a primary school in a war-torn neighborhood in central Baghdad, Iraq.
The mailing was part of a project started by an uncle of one of the Alvarado students--a soldier who recently completed his second tour in Iraq. Alvarado parent Angela Danison said her brother, a major in the U.S. Army, last year had asked his extended family to collect donations for the Iraqi school. Later, the family hit upon the idea of a drive at Alvarado, said Danison, who has lived in Noe Valley for 11 years and sends her four children to its local schools.
"We're going to help [the Iraqi] kids learn, and we wanted them to have a good school year," Danison said. Like Alvarado (located on Douglass Street), the Baghdad school has about 500 students.
For three weeks in April, Alvarado students and their parents dropped off donations of all sizes. The result was a bit of a jumble, but Danison sorted the supplies, then made her plea to the students: Can you help with the packing during recess?
Teachers had been asked to send one or two willing kids per class, and the crew met at a table on the playground. Gradually some fell away, while others grew more enthusiastic.
"It was very chaotic," Danison said. "Some kids wanted to go to recess after five minutes and other kids kept coming back for more tasks even after everything was done."
Francesca Kocks, 10, said she didn't donate supplies directly so she wanted to help with the packing.
"I knew it would be helping other people because they really need the supplies to help them learn," said the fourth-grader.
Danison's daughter Alana helped, too. The children divided up the notebooks and pencils to make each box even, then taped everything down.
"It just took 20 minutes!" said 10-year-old Alana, also in the fourth grade. "It was fun because we knew that what we were doing was going to help people."
From such happy chaos, Danison's brother hoped to build stability a half a world away. However, the secrecy that still surrounds helping the children in Iraq shows how difficult that task might be. Danison said her brother is on an al-Qaeda hit list for his work and therefore can't give his name. He and his special unit of 10 soldiers were embedded in the school's mixed Sunni/Shiite neighborhood for a year, getting to know the residents and helping them broker meetings and find a way to live together peacefully.
"The things that are working well under General Petraeus are what my brother was doing," Danison said, referring to the "hearts and minds" campaign that U.S. commander David Petraeus has tried to implement in the country.
The supplies--from soccer balls, pumps, and toys donated by Danison's large family, to the pencils and paper donated by Alvarado students--had to be free of logos or other markings that would identify them as American. Even the boxes themselves, which had return addresses, had to be destroyed before the supplies were distributed in Iraq.
"There are still people who will target a school if they think it took help from Americans," Danison said. Her brother's goal, she said, was to help the kids without endangering them.
For the Iraqi care packages, Danison wanted to focus on a few basic supplies and make sure she sent enough for the students to have a whole year's worth.
"That way, we feel we've taken care of all the kids," she said. "Hopefully, next year will be calmer for them."
The 12 very full boxes, efficiently packed by the Alvarado kids, were mailed in late April.
"They are just filled to the brim--stuffed with stuff," Danison said on packing day. The whole whirlwind took less than half an hour of the children's time.
"And they still had their recess," Danison said.