SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, Calif. --
The deputy commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force, Maj. Gen. Melvin G. Spiese, presented a trophy to Marco Forster Middle School for their outstanding contribution to the Spirit of America’s Afghan’s Children School Project, June 6.
The Spirit of America is a charitable organization that helps deployed service members improve relations and assist the population in their area of operations. The Afghan Children School Project is a joint effort between the Marines and Spirit of America to build, open and supply schools in Helmand province.
A competition was held within the Capistrano Unified School District to raise the largest number of school supplies for Afghan children. Marco Forster swept the competition by raising five boxes of supplies, each containing more than 200 items. More than 4,000 items were collected during the drive.
“This is more than a mere idle act,” Spiese said. “It greatly contributes to our success on the ground. Their generosity is truly remarkable. It helps us make our struggles overseas bigger than being isolated to the military. It gives the community a chance to participate and contribute to our success.”
Maj. Nina D’Amato, who returned from Afghanistan in March 2011 after serving as the education officer for Regional Command Southwest, met with school officials to discuss the importance of an educated Afghan generation. D’Amato said in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Afghanistan was in a developing phase with an education and healthcare system. Literacy, healthcare and education decreased once the wars and battles started.
“It was the beginning of their demise,” D’Amato said. “It became a breeding ground for militias, violence and drugs.”
Cynthia Martinez, founder and president of Words of Comfort, Hope & Promise, a military outreach dedicated to supporting troops, assisted the school district with the donations. Martinez said Afghan parents desire a good education for their children just as Americans desire the same for their children. Education under the Taliban rule, especially for girls, was nonexistent.
“The Taliban didn’t want them to have an education; otherwise they lose control and lose power,” Martinez said. “An education gives those kids a future. So many Afghan kids probably think all they can do to survive is to be part of the Taliban, and some are just forced to join. I believe that generation mindset will be changed.”
D’Amato asked the school district for their aid in the Adopt-a-School Helmand Project during a meeting with school officials. The district jumped at the opportunity to help Afghan children and their local Marines.
“The atmosphere at the school district PTA Council meeting was amazingly positive,” Spiese said. “I know the implementation of their actions was done in a very positive way. It was heartwarming, and it strengthened my confidence in the local community. I feel they understand and appreciate what we in the Marine Corps are trying to do overseas.”
President of the Capistrano Unified District PTA, Michele Langham, said she understands that in order to be successful in Afghanistan, Marines will need the support of the Afghan people. Educating Afghan children is crucial to improving their lives and the country’s future. She said coordinating the school supply drive hit home because it involved the Camp Pendleton military community.
“There are so many people that need so many things across the world and here in our own country,” Langham said. “Since we have close ties to Camp Pendleton Marines, it was a big driving factor and big push. Sure we can collect supplies for kids in our area, but it’s important for our Marines to put something good in place instead of just rooting out the bad.”
D’Amato said the school supply project will have multiple effects. As Marines secure the area, Afghan parents feel more comfortable about sending their children to nearby schools. Marines will deliver the supplies to schools and will generate the trust of the local population. Afghan children will receive the education that was nonexistent for years and possibly mold a future generation into a violence-free society.
“I think Afghans will start to see that there are people beyond the Marines that actually care about their growth as a nation and education,” D’Amato said. “Their children will start to be exposed by way of pencil or pen to a broader world beyond them."
“When communities stabilize, violence decreases,” D’Amato said. “If their people are attending school, they’re sending messages to people that don’t want them to thrive by saying ‘I want my kid educated.’ When Afghans see they have support beyond the security, they will commit to send their kid to school, which equals a decrease in violence, less injured Marines, less harmed and less exposed to violence.”
There are currently more than 100 working schools in Helmand province. Two years ago, the Taliban ran a small handful of schools in the once volatile town of Marjah and only accepted boys. Today, Marines partnered with Afghan security forces, have opened new schools in Marjah where more than 1,000 children are receiving an education. Fifty of those students are girls.
“Clearly we’ve been working hard to get the people’s trust and confidence by improving their lives, as opposed to us being an occupying force,” Spiese said. “If you have a positive effect on children, you have a positive effect on the overall mission and their country’s future.”