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Soldier Deployed to Afghanistan Organizes 'Shoes for Kids'

By Spc. Chris Stump, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

GARDEZ, Afghanistan, Dec. 16, 2004 – When Army Staff Sgt. Mark Matteson rode through an Afghan village for the first time, he saw barefoot children everywhere -- not because they didn't want to wear shoes, but because they had none.

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Army Pfc. Billy Jack Scharp, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Logistics Task Force 725, ties shoes on an Afghan girl near Zormat. Scharp and other soldiers and Marines from the Gardez Provincial Reconstruction Team made the trip to give shoes and other clothing items to those in need. Most of the items distributed were donated from troops' families in support of "Shoes for Kids," a program organized by a member of Task Force 168. Courtesy photo

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

"You see the children -- it hits you right in the heart. Or at least that's how it is for me," said Matteson of the shoeless children who can be seen in nearly every city, town and village throughout Afghanistan.

Matteson is a member of Task Force 168 and the Gardez Provincial Reconstruction Team, a position perfect for someone with a plan to give to those in need. His plan is to provide shoes for every child he can while he's here.

Working within an organization like a PRT, the goal of which is to provide stability and assist reconstruction, has allowed Matteson to provide for a need he's seen in the local population.

"I saw the kids with no shoes, and I wrote back home to tell them what's going on here," he said about how he started his "Shoes for Kids" program. Volunteers stateside gather shoes and mail them to him in Afghanistan to donate to the children.

To date, Matteson estimates he's received more than 7,000 pairs of shoes from those in his native Iowa. "It kicked off so big, there will still be shoes coming in after I leave next June," he said.

And it's not only shoes that are coming in now. The people organizing the drive back home thought the children and their families might need a little something extra to keep them warm during the coming winter. "It's gotten to the point where people aren't just sending shoes; they're sending blankets, clothes, everything," said Matteson.

"You know the handmade quilts people make back home?" he asked. "They're sending those, too!"

Whenever there's enough to give out a large quantity at once, a group from the PRT takes a truck full of donations and distributes them to the community. This gives Matteson the satisfaction of knowing more children have what they need, and it gives the soldiers and Marines at the PRT a chance to see smiles on the children's faces when they give them a pair of shoes, a toy or a blanket.

"You get a sense of pride in helping, because you know they really need it," said Army Sgt. Michael Brown, a member of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Logistical Task Force 725 and Gardez PRT. "Every kid I gave a pair of shoes or a blanket to -- I saw my own little girl's eyes." And the troops also appreciate the care and concern Soldiers like Matteson display.

"He's a multitasker. Doing this on the side, in addition to everything he's responsible for, is really unbelievable," said Brown. "A lot of respect goes out to him for caring and doing this.

"He takes time that he really doesn't have and puts it into helping others -- real selfless service," he added.

But, the smiles on the children's faces are all the praise Matteson really needs, he said. "It's one of the best things I've ever done," said Matteson. "I think it's one of the greatest things in the world.

"I hope to put shoes on every one of those kids in Gardez, (as well as) clothes and socks and everything else those kids need," he added.

(Army Spc. Chris Stump is assigned to the 17th Public Affairs Detachment.)

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Staff Sgt. Mark Matteson, a member of Task Force 168 assigned to the Gardez Provincial Reconstruction Team, started a program called "Shoes for Kids" to provide much-needed items for local Afghan families. Courtesy photo.  
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