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Volunteers give to Kosovo children

BY SUSAN KIM | Grand Rapids, MI | December 23, 1999

When Bea Berends' church asked her to pack Christmas gift boxes for children in Kosovo, of course she said "yes."

"I was more than willing to spend a few hours," she said. The original plan was to collect specific items -- hats, scarves, gloves, coloring books, crayons -- then pack a couple hundred boxes and send them off.

But -- especially after news of the need hit the pages of McCall's magazine -- a compassionate, enthusiastic response across the nation expanded beyond anyone's wildest dreams.

After nearly a thousand hours of work by more than 80 children and adult volunteers, more than 5,000 boxes are expected to be distributed in Kosovo by Christmas.

Volunteers crammed into a storage area in the basement in the headquarters of the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) in Grand Rapids, Mich. and started sorting, packing -- and catching a spirit of giving they'd never before experienced.

"I got started and just couldn't quit," said Marlene Veldhouse, a volunteer. "It was kind of addictive. We just kept saying, 'oh, let's stay a little longer.' "

"It just kept going and going," said her fellow volunteer Lynn Gort.

The boxes are age-varied -- coloring books for young children and journals for teens, for example -- and some contain personal notes or even photos from those who packed them.

The volunteers' enthusiasm, guided by national CRWRC disaster response leaders, is directed toward a vulnerable group -- children in Kosovo who are "going without" this Christmas as their country continues to recover from the devastating war which displaced hundreds of thousands of families. Recovery there is proceeding slowly and sometimes painfully.

Many in the relief community still consider the Kosovo conflict -- and the number of families left with nothing -- to be the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II. Thousands returned to burned and looted homes, and many have no jobs and no means for growing crops. Others are still searching in vain for missing family members and friends. Many also still need trauma counseling and medical care, and professional counselors are trying to focus on how people can live together after such recent and extreme horror and hate.

Infrastructure repairs scheduled for completion in six months are taking a year instead, said Joan Cosby a CRWRC program assistant. "There are so many people still without electricity, for example," she said.

Response officials are worried that raising funds for needs in Kosovo will become increasingly difficult since the situation left the media spotlight almost immediately after peace was declared. Many U.S.-based organizations are partnering with local groups in Kosovo to address humanitarian need and, at the same time, try to boost the country's vastly weakened economy, agriculture, and education sectors.

Of particular concern is the country's flagging agricultural production. Potatoes -- a staple of the Balkan diet -- along with seeds, farm tools, and other supplemental food supplies are among the biggest agricultural needs.

After learning about what children and families were facing for the winter, the volunteers found heightened energy to pack the items. And they also felt compelled to put a piece of themselves -- whether through personal notes, photos, or simple prayers -- into each package.

"Little children packed some of the boxes and they wrote letters and had a photo, so they (Kosovo children) won't think a factory had brought it," said volunteer Barb Drenth. "We have so much and they have so little."

Drenth said the volunteers, with guidance from CRWRC about what specific items were needed, also carefully sorted each box. Because the horrors of war are so fresh in many children's minds, "we couldn't put in any toys that were scary," she said.

Gort said her own teenagers helped pack boxes. "When I told my kids that these children may get only one toy for Christmas, they were very determined and very careful about what they bought to contribute," she said.

Berends, who voluntarily coordinated the project along with volunteer Wilma De Young, harnessed people's enthusiasm into hands-on work. "It got to be much bigger an much more time-consuming than we expected," she admitted, but she and the volunteers who participated are still carrying the glow of giving with them.

"It's been a good experience for the volunteers on this end and for the kids on the other end," said Cosby.

The project is not the first CRWRC effort that focuses on children at Christmastime. In cooperation with the Canadian Reformed Church and the Bible League, CRWRC in the past has also coordinated a Kits for Kids campaign in which nearly 4,000 boxes were shipped to orphanages in Romania.

Response leaders caution earnest volunteers and local churches to seek guidance from a response organization before starting to pack kits for children or other disaster survivors.

Care packages must be appropriately packed and sent. "We've been on the receiving end of gift boxes," said Drenth, who lived in Sierra Leone for six years. Many times the gifts are wonderful, she said, but sometimes the givers have not calculated shipping costs, which then must be paid by the recipient.

"If it comes through the post office, the duty is due, and you pay to receive it," said Drenth.

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