Roman Students Send Backpacks Stuffed With Love to Iraqi Kids
ROME — In coming weeks, countless young students in Iraq will go to school with new backpacks, notebooks, pens and pencils, crayons, construction paper, rulers, glue and pencil boxes, thanks to an initiative at another school, thousands of miles away.
Operation Backpack Iraq was launched in early October at Mary-mount International School in Rome at the behest of the school's head-mistress, Dr. Yvonne Hennigan, and its elementary- and secondary-school principals, Terrence McAndrews and Sister Paulita Kuzy.
In a letter to parents and students, Hennigan, who has a son serving in Iraq, noted that the mission statement of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, who run Marymount, includes the goal of “awakening a consciousness of social justice” and “actively and compassionately responding to the needs of others, especially the powerless, the deprived and the marginalized.”
“There are many places in the world today where people are powerless, deprived and marginalized,” Hennigan said. “However, at this time of war, the children of Iraq came to mind. Therefore, Mary-mount International is privileged to collect and send school supplies and personal goods to these needy children. The children in Iraq, some of them attending school for the first time in their life, have nothing in the way of learning instruments to assist the educational process.”
Backpack Iraq took off on Oct. 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the saint of peace and patron saint of Italy who, for centuries, has been an example of what it means to help the needy. The drive was scheduled to last until Oct. 16, Founder's Day at Marymount, but it was so successful that the deadline for donations had to be extended.
Staff, students and families worked together to collect school and personal items for young Iraqis, including small teddy bears, shampoo, toothbrushes, toothpaste, bandages, soap, wash-cloths and towels.
The first shipment of the more than 60 large boxes filled with gifts — and packed with love by Mary-mount students and staff — is on its way to Iraq courtesy of the U.S. Embassy in Rome. The boxes are being sent to Hennigan's son, Maj. J. Mark Hennigan, who will oversee distribution of the gifts.
Major Hennigan is commander of the 1st Battalion, 201st Field Artillery, based in Fairmont, W. Va., which provides security to convoys bringing supplies and fuel into Iraq for coalition forces and Iraqis. Though this is the battalion's primary mission, it also has the opportunity to conduct civil-affairs projects, such as Operation Backpack, to help local Iraqi villages.
“This is a great opportunity for us to provide to the Iraqi children something that they have not had in the past,” said Maj. Hennigan from his headquarters in southern Iraq. “Also, it is a great example to the Iraqi children that there are people in the world, especially other children, who care about them and their situation. I personally would like to applaud the students and families of MMI for their dedication and generosity to this project. I will personally ensure each item that has been donated gets into the hands of a needy Iraqi child.”
Marymount's Operation Backpack is a one-time initiative, but the needs of Iraqi schoolchildren will continue. Maj. Hennigan said Americans who want to make similar donations should get in touch with their local congressman (on the Internet at www.house.gov/writ-erep/), or contact the office of the adjutant general in their state (www. agaus.org/State%20Adjutants%20G eneral.htm) to ask what programs might be available.
How did the Marymount students feel about Backpack Iraq? Goff-sredo, a third-grader, said, “When the Iraqi kids wake up and can go to school with my things, then we will both be happy.”
Another third-grader, Raffaele, added, “I think the Iraqi children will feel good going to school. They can use our notebooks when they are with their friends.”
Bridget, in sixth grade, said she felt “it is important to donate these things to Iraq, a war-torn country, because I think it is so sad that innocent people are suffering. This really made me happy to see the bundles of stuff being sent to them. If Marymount was in need or Rome was in need, they would probably help us. I think it is the best thing to help people, rather than to see them suffer while we sit in luxury.”
Marymount International is a private Catholic day school serving children from age 3 through grade 12. The current enrollment of 786 represents 62 nationalities. More than 120 students are children of ambassadors or other officials at 16 different embassies.
The school is well known in Rome for strong academics, modern facilities, a caring atmosphere and staff, and an attractive campus.
Hennigan pointed out that there are 38 Muslim students enrolled at Marymount, adding that their excitement at Backpack Iraq was “palpable.” She emphasized “the interaction at Marymount between Muslims and Christians. We also have Jewish students enrolled in our school, and all students attend the same classes and participate in sports and after-school activities. The school builds relationships among all students by recognizing the same qualities and strengths common in all of our students.
“The very diversity of our student body,” Hennigan said, “is what makes our student population so special.”
The generous reaction of those students to Backpack Iraq will doubtless make them special in the hearts of Iraqi students and their families.
Joan Lewis works for Vatican Information Service.
- December 5-11, 2004