CENTREVILLE — Thousands of miles from home, one Centreville resident is making an impressive impact on the lives of Afghani children and women. Less than a year ago, CW3 Kaylan Harrington, Maryland Army National Guard Unit- Special Operations Detachment (stationed out of Towson), deployed to a small camp south of Kabul, Afghanistan and immediately saw a need. Since the drawdown of troops, most of the non-governmental funding to local schools, and education efforts have dropped, or are now non-existent. The girls are the littlest victims of Afghanistan and continue to suffer the most — 85 percent of them are illiterate. Most of them are married and pregnant by 14. All of them live in constant fear of being attacked simply for being a female. “This wasn’t our mission ... but it moved us,” said Harrington. “It started with a school and exploded into a cause. With a small team of volunteer soldiers and an army of support from around the world, we started to tackle the problem.”
Harrington said her unit’s primary mission there is to train, advise and assist the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command in its initial Special Forces school training, as well as mentoring them in many of their staff functions like intelligence collection, operations and things like supply and logistics.
What happened next was what Harrington calls the secondary mission — a rebuilding and outreach effort that would ultimately affect thousands of children.
“We have an extremely close working relationships with our Afghan partners,” said Harrington, “We get to know them and their families, and, in turn, we become intimately aware of the problems they are facing. Having spent a year here prior, I was well aware of the situation of many of the women and children in the more rural parts of this country. This is a beautiful culture, and Afghans are some of the most incredibly resilient and family-oriented people.”
But, said Harrington, there have been years and years of oppression and violence against women. Culturally, it is taboo for males to have interaction with women who are not their wives. The military has recognized this and used their military females in a capacity to provide support, interaction and comfort to the women there.
“I’ve treated women who were set on fire by their husbands, or who had been doused in acid,” said Harrington, “It was something that I struggled with immensely coming home last time. Women in the U.S. feel ‘oppressed’ but they truly don’t know what the meaning of the word is.”
The Taliban made it illegal for girls to attend school, to the point where many of the little girls trying to get to schools would be attacked, kidnapped, mutilated or worse. Even though the [Afghani] government has tried to increase the support to girls in school, said Harrington, they cannot always guarantee the safety and security of the girls and many families choose to keep their daughters at home.
The U.S. and coalition partners/non-profits/NGOs (non-governmental organizations) built many schools throughout the country during the earlier years of the war, but with the drawdown of troops, many of those buildings have become dilapidated, unsafe, unsanitary and unable to actually conduct classes conducive to learning, Harrington said.
When Harrington’s group was approached by some of the Afghan soliders they were working with — to help build a wall around their daughters’ “school” to provide a modicum of security — Harrington said her commander was extremely supportive and put together a convoy out to the school.
When Harrington’s unit arrived at the school, she said they were taken back at the gravity of the situation. There were 2,700 little girls sitting in an open courtyard, on the ground, in 100+ degree heat. They would move the groups of girls around the courtyard as the sun moved to try to keep them in the shade. They had no running water and all of them were using a small hole in the ground for a restroom.
Harrington said they started applying for funding through various humanitarian outlets and were able to get almost $150,000 in Humanitarian Assistance funding to build a new building, 10 bathrooms with running water, desks and chairs for all the girls, and a huge wall around the new school to keep them all safe.
But HA funding would not cover any extras like school supplies, books or play equipment. So Harrington put out a simple request on her Facebook page that soon went viral.
Organizations like Soldier’s Angels and Adopt a Platoon picked up her request, and Harrington said they were soon overwhelmed with thousands of boxes from complete strangers, teachers around the world, and kids donating their own school supplies.
Donors included a group of students from Centreville Elementary School who collected 125 pounds of Halloween candy and coordinated with the American Legion Jeff Davis Post to pay for shipping.
“I received such an incredible outpouring of support that we started to figure out where else we could share the love. People in the village and on the camp started to hear what we were doing and started bringing us new problems: a battered women’s shelter, families freezing without food in the mountains, an orphanage, a maternity clinic, another school, a women’s clinic ... and we just kept going, and kept fighting and kept looking for resources,” said Harrington.
Harrington and her team wrote letters to every nonprofit they could find. Scholastic Books in New York donated 500 books; Hoopoe Books in California printed 15,000 text books.
Locally, Harrington reached out to her former professors at Chesapeake College in Wye Mills and they helped share the GoFundMe page — raising hundreds of dollars. Niki and Bob Pino at An Optical Galleria in Centreville created fliers and brochures and set up boxes at their shop to collect donations. The Pinos also volunteered to pay for shipping, said Harrington. Also, patrons at Doc’s in Centreville sent numerous supplies, along with the Maryland State Police, who collected supplies at their headquarters and sent boxes as well.
The children now have desks and chairs to sit on, classrooms to decorate and keep them safe in winter, and a wall around the school so they can study in safety, said Harrington.
“We delivered tons and tons of supplies — literally tons — of 2,000 plus notebooks, books, whiteboards for all the classrooms, pens, pencils, posters, erasers, stickers and crayons. All donated from strangers around the world. The contrast of the tactical vehicles and the rainbow of crayons and pink notebooks in the back was not lost on us,” she said.
With the donated books, Harrington’s team created a library and airlifted a multitude of 350 lb. boxes of supplies to remote areas they couldn’t reach. Harrington said they packed Chinooks full and other aircrews pitched in to help even though it wasn’t their mission either.
“We sent the boxes to the bravest of Green Berets at an OP who handed them over to local village elders who just re-opened schools that had been closed from the Taliban for years. We found more schools nearby, and we delivered school supplies to them. Meanwhile, local Afghan contractors had their own families making desks and chairs from scratch just to help out.
“We visited an orphanage and women’s center that specializes in keeping children off the street, and instead gives them a quality education and encourages college, and we brought them supplies, too,” said Harrington. “Notebooks, learning materials, flashcards and tons of books. So many books, they were able to build their own library too.”
They also delivered the 125 lbs. of donated Halloween candy to the children. Witnessing 250 orphaned children on a sugar high from American candy was one of the days Harrington said she will long remember.
“Things we take for granted every day, like blankets, jackets, clothes, heaters and shoes, food and cooking oil make such a huge difference for these families struggling to survive and rebuild,” Harrington said.
Her unit was also able to “adopt” a women/children’s free clinic on camp, delivering hundreds of blankets, baby clothes, diapers, medical items, and food to them, said Harrington, and providing them running water, a new water heater to ensure sanitation standards were met and new windows and doors to give them privacy.
Then they started to build a massive playground at the clinic and will dedicate it to one of their own soldiers that was lost, Harrington said. “And we will ensure that his memory will be surrounded by laughter and love. Where there once was dirt, there is now brightly colored slides and swings.”
Partner forces joined with Harrington’s effort, risking their own lives to take more collected food and supplies to families in the country that needed it the most this winter. Ironically, said Harrington, they did the biggest drop ever this past Thanksgiving.
“A holiday not even celebrated here [in Afghanistan], but somehow the significance of being thankful was not lost because of culture. They loaded truck after truck, and they found the families who were hungry, struggling, living with literally nothing. They taught all of us what Thanksgiving was really about,” she said.
Behind what Harrington calls all the “awesome photo ops,” they were fighting hard for funding to supply the effort. “We spent countless nights filling out stacks upon stacks of tedious paperwork, applying for Humanitarian grants and funding,” said Harrington, “and when the funds ran out, we raised our own money.” Soldiers donated; friends and families donated. Local bazaar workers collected everything they had, COLs and CSMs shaved their heads, and Harrington herself volunteered to get a tattoo — raising an additional $10,000. Harrington said she could go on and on with the list of those who supported their mission.
Although much was accomplished in a short amount of time, the enormity of those actions is not lost on Harrington. What was accomplished, Harrington said, was because of the generosity of people here in the states.
“Because of all the amazing, selfless Soldier’s Angels, family, friends and coworkers who sent boxes, who donated online, soldiers — not only U.S., but Slovak, Polish and Afghan — who took their own down-time and off days to do all of this while holding down their full time duties, soldiers who used civilian construction experience to design the school, who risked their lives on missions to get us to orphanages, we did it. We did it because our leadership supported us, encouraged us, and understood it was important, not just to the locals, but to the youngest soldiers here who maybe didn’t understand the implications of this 16 year conflict completely.
“We did it because we were told we couldn’t. We heard ‘no’ and ‘can’t’ a lot. ‘It’s not possible.’ There were a lot of haters. A lot of people who said, ‘It’s too difficult.’” Harrington said.
Many days though, while the possibility became reality, it was extremely difficult. It wasn’t all fun, she said, recounting trying days spent with rape victims. Days they were literally lost. Days she was exhausted, frustrated and without hope.
“Plenty of days I just plain quit,” Harrington said. “I quit during arguments at ANA checkpoints, and during long convoys. I quit when we faced incomprehensible corruption and collusion head-on. I quit when I realized the problem was so much bigger than a few notebooks and a stuffed animal. I ugly cried after talking to female burn victims, and I spent hundreds of hours researching how to adopt every orphaned child and puppy here. ‘I quit’ became a running joke.” And the next day an email would arrive that said ‘when you decide you’re done quitting, 4,000 children’s jackets just arrived.’”
Those days of struggle were offset by the visible results of Harrington and her team’s actions, where she says she witnessed women cry tears of happiness and relief when they hugged her or held her hand a little tighter; watching young Afghan girls taking a chemistry test or getting 100 packages from complete strangers or pictures of kids enjoying their loot.
For those things, Harrington said, “Thank you. Thank you from all of us. You can’t change the world, no matter what Pinterest tells you, but you can cause a ripple.
“I’ve spent a lot of time here and understand that one school building, some stuffed animals and a few blankets aren’t going to change the future of a country that has been in turmoil for thousands of years. But I also believe that educating the next generation and giving them a voice in their own future is one of our best hopes as a force over here. At the end of the day it just comes down to basic human compassion and love for fellow humankind in general.
“I believe that as Americans, we often lose sight of the incredible opportunities we are given daily. Clean water, food, shelter and education. I’m just as guilty. Every deployment I promise myself I won’t take anything for granted when I come home, and a week later I’m complaining about traffic on the Bay Bridge with my heated seats on. It’s very easy to watch the news and feel hopeless or anxious about the state of this country, but the kindness, support, love and drive to help our efforts here from every single state and around the world tell me it’s going to be OK.”
Harrington said her group will be leaving in six short weeks. She said she is heartbroken to go because she feels there is still much they can do.
For those who would like to donate or get involved, Harrington shared the following links of organizations that are continuing to work in Afghanistan. Playground Builders builds playgrounds for children in war-torn countries, www.playgroundbuilders.org. They helped build the playground at Harrington’s clinic. Hoopoe Books in California, hoopoebooks.com, which works to ensure children in Afghanistan have their own books to hold onto and learn with, and Soldiers Angels, soldiersangels.org. You can go online and sponsor a soldier or a group of soldiers, and something so simple as sending a birthday card or a quick note to say hi, and it means to the world to a deployed serviceman, Harrington said.
“We don’t have to all drop what we are doing, give up all our worldly possessions, and fly across to the world to help people. Maybe for some, that’s their calling,” she said. “But instead maybe we should look to the group of Centreville students as an example. Did they give up every piece of candy they had and empty their toy boxes and bank accounts? No. Probably not. But they came together — together being the key word — and gave what they could, and by each of them contributing just a little, they raked in 125 lbs. If we all just did a tiny bit more, together we could be unstoppable.”