Backpacks help Iraqi children begin the school year

23 Jul 2003 | Spc. Melissa Walther

As the coalition continues to rebuild many of Iraq's schools, members of the 432nd Civil Affairs Battalion are working to ensure that the children who attend will have enough supplies for the new year.

Army Sgt. Kathryn Utecht, a member of the education team of the 432nd, based in Green Bay, Wis., thought up a program she calls "Backpacks for Iraq" in order to help the children of Iraq start the school year with supplies they might not normally have.

"I just came up with the idea because I didn't know if the children would have enough supplies to go through the school year," Utecht said.  "I then heard that it is not a new idea and that people had been doing things like this in the states, too.  I just thought it would be nice to give the children a gift to learn with."

Based out of An Najaf, Iraq, Utecht is seeking backing from a local store in the United States to help out with this program, according to Maj. Jeff Ponkratz, 432nd CA Battalion public affairs chief.

"People in the states are working hard and seem very excited about the program," Utecht said.

There are approximately 200,000 students in the province of An Najaf, most of whom don't have the basic supplies for school, according to Utecht. She said any amount received would go a long way.

"At the time we started the program, we thought we were going to have school supply issues," said Utecht, a resident of Green Bay, Wis.  "We didn't think there would be any supplies."

She is waiting for the first shipment of backpacks to arrive soon, though she didn't know how many were shipped.

Now, most An Najaf schools are supplied out of a central distribution warehouse in Baghdad, and some of the supplies can be found there, but not all.  According to Ponkratz, the program would allow local students who could not afford supplies to get them. In turn, it would also allow more schools to be supplied from the warehouse.

Utecht has put together a list of supplies, broken down by grade level, that should be included in each backpack as well as a list of supplies that would be appropriate to donate to teachers.

A typical backpack for secondary and high school students would include five 80-sheet notebooks, a box of colored pencils and a sharpener, five pencils, an eraser and two ballpoint pens.

According to Utecht, each backpack should include the same supplies to reduce conflict between students.  Also, Utecht said each backpack should be in primary colors so they can be used for students of either gender.

People are given the choice to sponsor either a school by providing supplies for the teachers or a student.

"We will distribute some of the backpacks, but the rest will be taken to the stationary warehouse to be distributed to the headmaster," Utecht said.  "I hope to get all the schools in Najaf with this program."

If there are extra backpacks, they are going to be dispersed throughout the provinces 1st Marine Division oversees, she said.