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BAGRAM, Afghanistan — The provinces surrounding America’s largest military base in this country are some of the poorest places on Earth.

Realizing that, a small group of U.S. servicemembers and civilians assigned to Bagram has been gathering donations — mostly by word of mouth — from Americans living in Europe and the States for the past few years.

About 16 tons of goods were processed in 2006, the group’s first year, and contributions to Operation Care continue to grow, according to Lt. Col. Geraldine Schutt, the group’s vice president.

"We need basic stuff," said Navy Lt. Sara O’Neil, the president. She’s leaving this week for Japan and turning over the reins to Navy Petty Officer 1st Class James Gaines. "Shoes. Clothes. School supplies."

School supplies are especially needed, Schutt says, because many new schools have opened as girls start attending classes, which was prohibited under the Taliban. So in many parts of the country, there are more students than supplies to support them.

Afghan schools can use just about any kind of supplies that their counterparts have in the States. That ranges from simple things such as pencils, pens and crayons to larger item such as backpacks, world maps and chalk boards.

Getting those students into good clothes — especially in the winter months — is also a top priority, O’Neil said. So donations of new or used clothing are welcome. And so are blankets.

Toys are also a big hit with kids, said Schutt, a member of the Army National Guard.

She’s seen that firsthand, because members of the group often accompany the donated goods to distribution sites.

"That’s the best part about doing this," she said, adding that she’s been on four or five such trips. So has O’Neil.

Gaines hopes he’ll surpass that before he leaves Bagram. He’s belonged to the group for about five months and quickly began to enjoy the few times each week that they would gather to sort through new donations.

"It’s not a lot of work and it’s a great environment," he said. "Everyone laughs a lot and jokes. It was like a stress reliever to my day."

The group — a nonprofit, nondenominational private charity — has maintained a fairly low profile, though it has set up a Web site: www.operation-care.net. O’Neil said there are about a dozen active members at Bagram, with the membership changing dramatically as servicemembers rotate in and out of the country.

"We just ask people to show up now and again and help," she said.

They do most of their sorting in a plywood B-Hut on base, with donations stored in a pair of metal containers nearby. O’Neil said that donations big and small are welcome, but said that people might want to take a look at the Web site first. Electronic items of any kind, for instance, will just be thrown away. So will items portraying religious themes or bearing the likenesses of pigs, cartoon or otherwise.

Such items just make it a longer job for volunteers sorting through donations before they’re given to an American or Afghan military team and sent out for distribution.

What to send

Clothes — All sizes and styles for men, women and children; new or used in good condition

Shoes — All sizes, especially for infants and children

Blankets

Toys — New or used in good condition; soccer and volleyballs, chess sets and kites are favorites

School supplies — Backpacks, pencils, pens, coloring books, crayons, rulers, erasers, pencil sharpeners, scissors, glue sticks, highlighters

Teachers’ kits — Index cards, pens, pencils, scissors, paper clips, maps, stickers, notebooks, chalk, staplers, glue, crayons and other school supplies

Stay away from:

Electronic or battery-operated items of all kinds

Anything with religious themes

Items that portray pigs (include cartoon characters)

Send donated supplies to:Operation CareAPO AE 09354

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.
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