ELLSWORTH, Wis. — When Lt. Col. Ryan Casper was deployed to Iraq in 2004-05 and Afghanistan in 2008-09, he found the most rewarding part of the experience to be collecting school supplies for children.
Seeing the smiles on the children’s faces as they received backpacks filled with supplies always brought a smile to his face as well.
For Casper, a social studies teacher at Ellsworth High School for the past 25 years, the humanitarian mission also delivered benefits back home, where students at the school collected goods for what they called the Ellsworth Hearts and Minds Club.
At the time he called it “easily the most rewarding work I’ve done in my life.”
More than a decade later, Casper, an Army Reservist who serves as commander of the Rochester, Minnesota-based 7212th Medical Support Unit, is back at it.
Recognizing that nearly 13,000 Afghan evacuees were just down the highway at Fort McCoy after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Casper knew the children once again would need school supplies if they were going to get an education in their new country, the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram reported.
“Many of the refugees have done things to help the United State military, and therefore the American citizens, and this is our opportunity to help them,” said Casper, a graduate of Eau Claire Memorial High School and UW-Eau Claire. “What better way to welcome people who are in a pretty tough position right now than to help them to the best of their ability to assimilate and help their kids with education.”
When he and social studies department colleague Ann Pechacek broached the idea of Ellsworth High School students restarting the Ellsworth Hearts and Minds Club to help out, the response was enthusiastic.
Nine students are spearheading a new effort to collect money to buy school supplies for Afghan refugee children — and satisfying their service learning requirement at the same time.
The goal of the project, which is scheduled to run through Nov. 15, is to raise $5,000, or enough to buy backpacks, markers, pens, pencils, sharpeners, colored paper and whiteboards for nearly 400 children, said Kyle Luchsinger. The senior used his video editing skills to help create a promotional video for the effort and also connected with a school supply wholesaler to ensure the students get the most bang for their buck.
“I was immediately interested in the project because there are very few opportunities where students get to make a big impact like this,” Luchsinger said.
The plight of the refugee children hit home for many of the students when they realized the number of refugees jammed into Fort McCoy is roughly four times the population of the village of Ellsworth.
“Many of us here in America will never know the hardships of war that these families have experienced and as a result we would like to help out in any way we can,” senior Brianna Maurer said.
While the students are aware that some people have been critical of the placement of Afghan refugees at the Wisconsin military base, their thoughts are with the thousands of traumatized children abruptly displaced from their home country.
“It’s easy to dehumanize individuals that sometimes you can’t see, but at the end of the day they’re just children like anyone around here could have, children in a desperate situation who need help,” senior Jeremy Kannel said.
“Our focus,” senior Payton Langer said, “is just the kids and giving them the tools to pursue their education. This is definitely going to make a difference in their lives.”
The Ellsworth students have been arriving at school early almost daily to plan and carry out the humanitarian operation.
Casper, who was honored with the prestigious Applegate-Dorros Peace and International Understanding Award from the National Education Association for his previous humanitarian outreach work in Iraq and Afghanistan, visited Fort McCoy about a month ago on a scouting mission to see if a student-led effort would be possible. He met with soldiers stationed at the base as well as charitable organizations before determining it would work.
The 37-year military veteran hopes to get clearance for the students to deliver the supplies themselves. If not, he plans to have a charitable organization carry out the duties.
Just as with his previous humanitarian missions, Casper said he believes the latest effort benefits both sides — the Afghans because they receive needed supplies and the Americans because the refugees see the giving nature of people in their new home.
It also has potential to teach a priceless lesson to a new generation of Ellsworth students rising to an international challenge.
“It gives them a chance,” Casper said, “to see firsthand the positive nature of helping others and giving.”