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America Supports You: Kids Get 'Hands-On' View of Afghanistan

By Paul X. Rutz
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 19, 2006 – For the past year and a half, Kathleen Rafiq has been drawing on her personal experiences to teach American school children on both U.S. coasts what it's like to live in Afghanistan.

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Kathleen Rafiq (left) sits with school children in Afghanistan in 2005. Rafiq is currently starting a pen pal program between Afghan and American students. Traveling often between Afghanistan and the United States, Rafiq has partnered with "Kids Serve Too" to bring Afghan life and culture to American school children. Photo by Pete Bawden

(Click photo for screen-resolution image)

"I've been traveling back and forth to Afghanistan since right after 9/11," she said via telephone from California just prior to boarding an airliner for Afghanistan yesterday. "I have a 25-year-long history with Afghanistan, relationships with friends and family, and I was married to an Afghan."

Rafiq works with "Kids Serve Too," a program launched in 2002 by a Virginia nonprofit group called "Salute Our Services." The program helps the children of servicemembers deployed overseas, providing grants, multicultural instruction and information to help educators better understand the problems children face when their parents deploy.

So far, Rafiq has done presentations at schools in California, Vermont, Massachusetts and New York, and she hopes to expand the program to more schools throughout the country.

"I have pictures, PowerPoint pictures, video, and I buy clothing and all kinds of artifacts and bring them back and let the kids try on clothes," she said. "It's a very hands-on type of presentation."

With a background in video journalism, she has done presentations at very big venues, such as the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and in small classroom settings. But whatever the situation, Rafiq said she loves unlocking kids' curiosity. "The discourse that goes on, I mean, it's just amazing," she said.

During her current trip to Afghanistan, Rafiq said she expects to help sow the seeds of a pen pal program between students in the United States and Afghanistan, using pictures instead of words. And upon her return to the States, she hopes to spread her lecture circuit beyond the coasts.

"Right now it's sort of a pilot program back east," she said.

While the goal behind Kids Serve Too has been mainly to offer services to children of deployed National Guard and Reserve troops, volunteers with the project have recently found ways to touch other lives.

"I think an important point there is that this isn't about singling out the child of the deployed military. This is about teaching the entire student body," said Patricia Johnson, founder of Kids Serve Too and its parent organization, Salute Our Services, based in Herndon, Va.

The impetus behind Salute Our Services and Kids Serve Too came from Johnson's personal experience when her husband, Army Reserve Maj. Kevin Lanigan, was deployed to Bosnia in early 2001.

"Initially, Salute Our Services was ... very focused on what I thought were the communication needs of spouses like me," Johnson said. "Shortly after getting involved in this area of supporting deployed soldiers and their families, I realized that the kids were carrying an enormous burden and were ill-equipped to handle it."

Johnson said reservists and guardsmen often do not have the same on-base military connections as their active-duty counterparts. She sees an important role for her group in helping children cope with the stresses that come when a parent is deployed.

"We have an educational pamphlet that we provide to schools around the country who want to educate their educators about these kinds of issues, and it gives them some ideas of how to engage these children in activities where they can meet each other," she said.

Kids Serve Too also provides grants to keep funding children's involved in extracurricular activities, such as sports, music and dance classes. Looking back, Johnson said she was surprised to find how much the financial impact of her husband's deployment took a toll on her children's after-school routine.

The program offers grants throughout the country, and application is made as simple as possible. "The parent just needs to provide evidence that their spouse is deployed," Johnson said. "We do not ask for their financial status."

However, Johnson said she sees the grant program as just one step to a much more comprehensive, long-lived effort to benefit the children of deployed servicemembers. She said she has encountered many military families who feel reluctant to ask for financial help. She hopes her group's present way of doing business -- offering grants to those who ask -- will soon be replaced by an effort to offer families the help they need without requiring them to ask for it.

"If you own a dance studio and you have children as part of your membership whose parents are deployed, give them a break," she said. "That eliminates the self-consciousness. Then the person, the family member, doesn't have to seek out places to get extra help financially."

The program has been finding ever-greater support from business and government leaders, such as the American Legion, Rotary Club, MicroSoft, DefenseWeb Technologies, Professional and Scientific Associates, and several members of Congress, Johnson said.

"I am convinced that people care about the plight of the military family," Johnson said. "I think it means a lot to all the military families that people care and people want to help and are looking for ways they can do that."

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Kids Serve Too

Click photo for screen-resolution imageKathleen Rafiq (right) has morning tea on a mountainside in Afghanistan in 2005. Traveling often between Afghanistan and the United States, Rafiq has partnered with "Kids Serve Too" to bring Afghan life and culture to American school children. Photo by Pete Bawden  
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