Army captain's idea blossoms in Afghanistan
January 13, 2005
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — A minister’s sermon, a dinner chat with mom and a series of thank-you notes have helped launch a humanitarian effort that stretches from the mud hovels of Afghanistan to the high-rises of America.
It is the effort of a U.S. Army captain who took a seed of an idea to assist Afghan schoolchildren and nurtured it into a full-fledged nongovernmental organization.
In characteristic fashion, Capt. Todd Schmidt modestly attributes the growth of Operation Dreamseed Inc. to “the heartland heroes” back home. They range from a large New York City law firm and a Chicago philanthropist, to a Houston middle school and a Beverly Hills investment-consulting firm.
Another backer is Abdul Aziz, who emigrated from Afghanistan to the United States in 1980, starting his new life as a dishwasher.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Aziz said of Schmidt’s efforts. Aziz, who is now a civil engineer, spoke by telephone from his home in Corona, Calif. “He’s a wonderful person. I hope he succeeds, and I’ll help him as much as I can.”
That help doesn’t involve just the folks back home.
Dozens of soldiers assisted Schmidt with Dreamseed’s first large-scale effort last month. The “I Choose Freedom” speech contest in early December drew 2,500 Afghan students and thousands of parents. By day’s end, each child received a backpack stuffed with school supplies from donors in the United States.
“We had a soccer field filled with kids,” Schmidt said of the event. “That was something.”
The idea for Dreamseed began in February, when Schmidt returned to his boyhood home in Greenwood, Ind.
Schmidt and his wife, Joy, were visiting family before his deployment to Afghanistan. One night, while seated at his parents’ dinner table, his mother, Wendy, asked him to look for ways she and her pupils at Maple Grove Elementary School could make a difference for Afghan children.
When he and other members of the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii headed to Afghanistan in the spring, Schmidt began to survey the conditions of local schools in the Kandahar area.
“You can walk into just about any classroom and see that they don’t have chalkboards,” Schmidt said. “They don’t have desks or chairs. Most classrooms have dirt floors, and there are no window panes and no doors.”
At about the same time, Schmidt and the other soldiers of his unit, Battery A, 1st Battalion, 62nd Air Defense Artillery Regiment, began receiving care packages from anonymous people in the United States. The goodie boxes consisted of the normal fare, such as candy and hygiene items. Schmidt had one request of his soldiers: When you receive a care package, reply with a short thank-you note.
“He means the best in everything he does,” said Spc. Christopher Cipponeri, a 21-year-old assigned to the battery.
That simple gesture made a huge impression.
“When we sent those thank-you notes,” Schmidt said, “everything kind of blossomed out of it.”
The notes generated return letters, many asking the troops what else they might need.
“We have everything you need, really, when you think about it,” the 32-year-old captain said, referring to the amenities on base.
Schmidt began thinking of the Afghan children, and their dire situation. His thoughts and observations were passed along in letters. That was all it took to set in motion Dreamseed, a term he borrowed from a minister back home.
One of the care packages his unit received was from Connie Fratainni, a partner in the New York City law firm of Shearman & Sterling, which boasts more than 1,000 lawyers worldwide. Letters evolved into e-mails and then to phone calls. Eventually, Fratainni and another partner, Saralynn Cohen, offered to provide pro bono work to incorporate Dreamseed and to help it apply for tax-exempt status as a nonprofit organization.
Dreamseed was formally incorporated on Nov. 12. By that time, donors large and small had stepped forward. The University of Nebraska, a leading authority on Afghanistan, and Denver University also are interested in furthering Dreamseed’s mission.
That mission, Schmidt said, involves three phases.
The first is to provide schoolchildren in southern Afghanistan with basic school supplies.
Next is the renovation of schools, which is not as simple as it may seem. In a land where only 5 million of the nation’s 28 million people can read, Schmidt noted that some teachers have their work cut out for them. In some cases, they use rocks to scrawl lesson plans on the walls of their mud-brick classrooms.
“These kids have nothing,” said Cipponeri, a soldier who has played a major role in helping Schmidt. “All these children have smiles on their faces and wear rags for clothes. When you help them, it opens a new part of you in your heart.”
Ultimately, Schmidt would like to establish an exchange program between Afghan teachers and institutions in the United States. He said talks with the University of Nebraska and Denver University are in their infancy, but already the latter is interested in sending doctoral candidates to Afghanistan.
“We want to get the new generation to lean toward the Western ideology,” said Aziz, who is expected to become a member of Dreamseed’s board of directors.
“The U.S. military isn’t just there to give [Afghans] freedom from terror,” Aziz added, America wants “to educate the young people of Afghanistan. It’s very important. It’s very important.”
What’s important to Joy Schmidt is her husband’s safe return. On the organization’s Web site, she wrote a congratulatory note, but implored him “to stay focused” on his primary responsibility — being a soldier. Schmidt smiled as he recounted those words.
One concern that seems to have dissipated is who will carry on his work in Afghanistan.
Aziz plans to return to assist the Afghan government, and cash donations to Dreamseed should allow Schmidt to hire two full-time employees. In addition, an officer with the 173rd Airborne Brigade from Vicenza, Italy, the unit that will replace the 25th ID in the spring, has pledged to keep the initiative going.
The good will of so many people back home “is humbling,” Schmidt said. “There are so many great people across America.”
“If you have a generation of kids that realize the importance of education, to me, that’s an investment in the future,” Schmidt added. “We Americans need to foster those seeds of hope.”