Spirit of America Supports Efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 27, 2004 To Los Angeles businessman Jim Hake, winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi and Afghan people requires personal not just governmental intervention.
That's why Hake founded Spirit of America, a nonprofit group that seeks donations to support grassroots efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan forged in the name of friendship.
Marines and volunteers at Camp Pendleton, Calif., assemble school supply kits funded through donations to Spirit of America. The Marines will distribute the supplies to local children when they deploy to Iraq. Photo courtesy of Spirit of America
(Click photo for screen-resolution image)
Hake said he was inspired to found the organization through televised reports about U.S. Special Forces soldiers in Orgun-e, a remote Afghan village about 20 miles from Pakistan. Army Sgt. 1st Class Jay Smith asked his wife to send baseball gloves and balls for the local children. Within just a few weeks, she had collected enough donations to equip two teams.
Hake said the impact of the initiative ran far deeper than the gifts themselves. "They showed a genuine desire to help the people of the village and built close and positive relations with the villagers," he said.
That friendship was put to the test when the soldiers suffered a rocket attack from al Qaeda members who had sneacked into the village from Pakistan. In response, the people of Orgun-e formed a "community watch," patrolling the village area each night to protect the U.S. soldiers. The rocket attacks stopped.
"Once they saw we had a true-blue interest in them, they joined with us," Smith said. "The things we did to help people in Orgun-e literally saved lives -- theirs and ours."
Hake is working to channel the same level of grassroots support for similar projects throughout Afghanistan and Iraq. The goal, he said, is to help Americans serving overseas improve the lives of people in need, while at the same time improving local perceptions about America and the American people.
"This is a way of saying, this is who we are," he said. "It's the way a lot of attitudes and perceptions get changedthrough personal interaction."
Hake established a Web site for service members on the ground to request donations for their causes, and for the public to make donations. All donations carry a message reading, "A gift of friendship from the American people."
So far, the organization has run several successful campaigns. It solicited donations for red, white and blue soccer jerseys and dental supplies for two Marine Corps units to distribute south of Baghdad, and for pianos and violins for an Army unit to share with the Kurds in northern Iraq.
Spirit of America's most recent venture raised $56,000 for 10,000 school supply kits, 3 tons of medical supplies and 15,000 flying discs emblazoned with the word "friendship" in both English and Arabic. Members of the 1st Marine Division from Camp Pendleton, Calif., will take the donations with them to Iraq.
Hake said his organization is about to post two new requests for donations on its site: one from Smith's Special Forces unit requesting school supplies and clothing for an Afghan orphanage, and another from a chaplain requesting school supplies, blankets, clothing, stuffed animals and other toys for an orphanage in Kirkuk, Iraq.
Hake said he's convinced that Spirit of America is making a lasting impact on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It's clear to me that expanding positive interactions on the front lines assists those in need and helps America further reflect and perpetuate the ideas for which it stands," he said.