Many residents of eastern Afghanistan will weather the winter a little warmer thanks to the efforts of some Columbia County youths.
Teens and children at Wesley United Methodist Church in Evans collected coats to be shipped to their deployed youth counselor, U.S. Army Maj. David Gaitonde, in Afghanistan.
"When I found out that I was deploying (sometime back in September 2008), I talked to the youth at Wesley about ways that they could support my deployment," Gaitonde wrote in an e-mail from Afghanistan. "I challenged the youth to reach out across the world and impact the lives of Afghanis."
Gaitonde, an endocrinologist at Eisenhower Army Medical Center, is a field surgeon attached to the 40th Cavalry Regiment at Forward Operating Base Gardez in the Paktya Province in eastern Afghanistan. He was deployed to the base, which sits more than 7,000 feet above sea level, in February. Gaitonde also served in Iraq in 2005, he said.
Afghanistan is a poor country and winters in the mountainous country often are harsh, Gaitonde said. So he wanted to collect and pass out warm coats to the Afghanis.
The youths embraced the idea, which they titled May I Take Your Coat to Afghanistan, and got busy, said Patty Gilbert, the church's middle school youth director.
"They took it and ran with it," Gilbert said, adding that the youths put out collection boxes in the church and some area schools and made videos to advertise the collection drive to the congregation. "It wasn't just a church project. It is a project that went out to the community."
The youths started collecting coats earlier this year and have amassed 1,000 to 1,500 coats and sweaters, Gilbert said. They donated their time to sort, clean and pack the coats in the church mission building -- which is not air conditioned.
"To me, it is amazing. A lot of these kids, they could be playing sports or video games and they give up their free time to help sort jackets that have come in or go to the laundromat and wash them, that sort of thing," Gilbert said. "It is a lot of manpower."
Daniel Cirincione, 14, of Martinez, and his sister, Laura Moeller, 14, spent many Tuesday afternoons sorting coats, then taking them home to be cleaned. Daniel and Laura said only part of their dedication to the project comes from how much they like Gaitonde, who the youth call Dr. G.
"And just trying to help around the world," Daniel said. "When you think about it, in Afghanistan, it gets cold during the winter."
The youths held two spring fundraisers -- a 5K run/walk and a night at Chick-fil-A -- to help cover the cost of cleaning and shipping the coats.
"So the youth really took the mission to Columbia County and involved the community at large in their desire to reach out and help the people of Afghanistan," Gaitonde said.
Because the shipping costs were significant and raised funds didn't cover it, Gaitonde secured a grant from Spirit of America to cover the remaining costs. The nonprofit helps Americans serving abroad to assist people in need by responding to requests from American military and civilian personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa for items that will help the local people.
More than 75 boxes were expected to head to FOB Gardez this week.
Gaitonde already has passed out items to Afghan children, including coloring books, crayons and toys that also were donated by church members. He said he is eagerly awaiting the arrival of the coats.
"My plan at the moment is to distribute the coats throughout the Paktya Province, not just at ... Gardez," Gaitonde said. "Afghanistan is made up of numerous small villages and towns and this is the population I'd like to reach."
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