Like many Americans concerned about the plight of refugees in Kosovo, 17-year-old Ruth Edele longed to find a tangible way to help. Repeatedly she asked her parents, "What can I do?"
Two weeks ago her mother, Lisa, found one answer: a project that is airlifting plastic bags filled with small toys and games to children in refugee camps.
Ruth, a high school junior, asked the principal of her private school in Trumbull, Conn., if she could talk to 10 classes of elementary students about the effort, called Kids Care Kosovo. He agreed. She showed students three sample packages and encouraged them to help.
"I brought it to the children and teachers as a way to reach out, so kids would know there is something they can do," says Ruth, of Stamford, Conn. The students responded with enthusiasm.
An opportunity to respond
"Kids here are bombarded with the refugee crisis on TV," says Deborah Spaide of New Canaan, Conn., founder of Kids Care Clubs, a national organization that promotes the spirit of charity in children. "They have to have an outlet, an opportunity to respond. It's just too painful to see this stuff and feel there's nothing you can do."
Staff members devised the project as a way of helping refugee children fill the long hours in camps. Most are not in school, and most fled with almost nothing.
"When you're packing up and running from your home, toys just don't make it," says Spaide.
Each "comfort bag" contains two pairs of warm socks, soap, a small stuffed animal, a coloring book, crayons, a ball, and a deck of cards. Donors package the items in a 12-by-18-inch plastic bag. A gallon-size zipper-style bag can serve as a substitute.
Explaining the need for bags that are waterproof and easy to carry, Spaide says, "In the best-case scenario, refugees are living in tents. In the worst-case scenario, they're living out in the open rain." The second pair of socks can serve as mittens if temperatures drop at night.
Children donating bags are encouraged to include a message in Croatian: Ovu torbu salje djeca sa ljubavlju kojha se brinu za vas! The translation reads: "This bag is sent with love from kids who care about you!"
Last Friday a group of students gathered at a community center in Norwalk, Conn., to prepare bags for the first airlift this week. Students and staff members checked to be sure that all items are new and that each bag contains enough toys and supplies.
The goal is to provide a bag for every child in a camp. "We don't want to have 50 bags and 2,000 kids," Spaide says.
The airlift to refugee camps in Macedonia and Albania is sponsored by AmeriCares, an international relief agency based in New Canaan.
"It's tough on the kids in these camps," Stephen Skakel, vice president of operations at AmeriCares.
"Even if the fighting stops tomorrow, I can't see them out of there for several months. Most of these families have entered into Albania or Macedonia with the clothing that was on their backs. Even simple toys that relief workers have bought on their trips and handed out, the kids absolutely love them."
Mr. Skakel tells of visiting a transit camp for refugees in Tirana, Albania. Nearly 400 children crowded into a large room.
"Normally, when you walk into a room with that many kids, you'll hear the laughter of children being themselves, horsing around and playing with each other," he says. "That just wasn't the case. It's clearly evident on their faces and in their lack of playfulness that these kids are incredibly traumatized."
As word of the Kosovo project has spread to the 300 Kids Care chapters nationwide, support has grown. "We've had great response throughout the country," says Tara Whalen, a Kids Care staff member.
When children at Ruth Edele's school told their parents about the project, the Edeles' telephone started ringing. "I had several calls from mothers asking if they could help," Mrs. Edele says.
For her next effort, Ruth plans to collect comfort bags at her church. "I'm really glad to be doing this," she says simply.
Speaking of the far-reaching effects of the project, Skakel adds, "To be able to give these refugee kids a toy and to bring at least a small ray of hope or joy into their lives - it's a big deal for them."
*Plastic bags filled with new items can be sent to : Kids Care Kosovo, Kids Care Clubs, 382 Smith Ridge Road, South Salem, NY 10590. For more information, call 914-533-1101 or see www.kidscare.org