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Firefighters comfort a person as they search through the rubble of a collapsed building in L’Aquila, Italy, in April. Entire blocks were flattened in the mountain city of L’Aquila and nearby villages by an earthquake.

Firefighters comfort a person as they search through the rubble of a collapsed building in L’Aquila, Italy, in April. Entire blocks were flattened in the mountain city of L’Aquila and nearby villages by an earthquake. (AP photo)

NAPLES, Italy — Marilena Minieri says that little can beat the satisfying feeling of helping someone in need.

Minieri, president of the Naples-based Welfare Recreation Association, has the experience to know.

In April, the WRA led the military community in Naples — Italians and Americans alike — in a donation drive to help victims of the April 6 earthquake in L’Aquila that killed nearly 300 people and left more than 60,000 homeless.

The drive amassed boxes of critical supplies for the earthquake victims, including diapers and toiletries, Band-Aids, crayons and coloring books, clothing and even cosmetics. The food drive brought in pasta, rice, canned foods, coffee and olive oil, among other items.

It was one of many community service projects organized year-round by the association, which is run by Italian employees in the mold of the U.S.-run Morale, Welfare and Recreation department, Minieri said.

Groups such as the Allied Spouses Club, the Chief’s Mess association and high school clubs seek out community service tips and connections from the WRA.

The WRA has capitalized on its ability to tap their employee members as well as U.S. and NATO military personnel and their families in Naples. The effort blends U.S. and Italian cultures to help the needy, she said.

WRA-like groups are common at Italian businesses, but are used mainly to improve the morale of Italian employees with programs such as discounted tours, holiday parties and social events to bring employees and their families together during non-working hours.

But the Naples-based WRA goes beyond socializing, its leaders say, and takes full advantage of the relationship forged with U.S. base officials and its employees to help the less fortunate of the community, said Rocco Merola, the association’s vice president.

The association provides a vital link between the Navy base and Italian organizations that are all too happy to accept the help, said Maria De Blasio, the community liaison specialist for Naval Support Activity Naples.

“I see them as a bridge,” she said. “They know the culture, the Italian culture and they understand very well the American culture. ... When they are approached by an organization, they know exactly how they can help.”

Mostly, base organizations and community outreach programs adopt children being cared for in group homes throughout the region, De Blasio said. In the 1980s, orphanages in Italy were disbanded and banned, with the government setting up in its place “case famiglia,” or “family homes,” similar to foster home programs in the United States.

Service projects usually are cultivated and organized by the WRA, both for on-base visits and in the city and its suburbs. The association organizes pool days at the Carney Park recreational facility, or can arrange for children to use the bowling alley at the support site base in Gricignano.

“The reaction is very pro-American, of course,” De Blasio said. “Whenever they go out, the WRA always says ‘we work for the base, we work with the Americans.’ … It shows off the American good heart.”

The WRA does not accept financial contributions. “We need items, or donations like clothing and food, and most importantly, volunteers,” Minieri said.

Events, projects and information are posted on the association’s Web site, www.wraitalia.it.


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