FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Notebook paper, colored pencils, folders and other basic school supplies fill the desks and backpacks of most young American children, but to the children of Afghanistan, who often live in extreme poverty, they are a luxury their families may not be able to afford. For friends and Families of the Spartan Brigade, they also serve as tools for helping support their Soldiers’ efforts downrange.

Several Spartan spouses gathered June 5 at the 3rd Brigade Combat Team “Spartans” headquarters building for their first “packing party” in support of Operation Education, a program that sends school supplies to deployed Soldiers to distribute to local schools.

“This program is started by Gary Sinise called ‘Operation International Children,’ and our area here at Fort Drum has chosen to also support that,” said Diana C. Helwig, 710th Brigade Support Battalion Family Readiness Group adviser.

“It’s a wonderful way for us to do our part back here while our Soldiers are deployed,” said Jennifer K. Frank, 3rd BCT FRG adviser. “It’s a great way for us to help the Afghan children, and it’s also a great way for our Soldiers to build good will within the country of Afghanistan, because they will take the kits that we put together and hand them out themselves to the children.”

Although the Spartan Brigade only recently began working on the project for the unit’s current deployment to southern Afghanistan, it is not new to residents of the North Country.

“It’s a program that usually gets passed around the different brigades here at Fort Drum,” Frank said. “So whichever unit is deployed at that time tends to take on this project. The unit before us that was deployed came to us and said, ‘We’ve been doing this; is this something you would like to do?’ and of course we immediately said ‘yes, we would love to take on that program.’”

“We are purposeful about making sure the program is handed off to the next brigade that’s deploying so we learn from each other; we get better and better every time so we can support our Soldiers,” Helwig said.

The first official packing party was by no means the first time Spartan supporters had worked on Operation Education.

“We’ve been working on this project for some time now, so (the packing party) is really the kick-off for it,” said Karyn Mintz, FRG adviser for 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, one of 3rd BCT’s subordinate battalions. “We have been sending out information and flyers to all of our Families, and we’re finally seeing some of the fruits of that labor, so this is our first party.

“We’re very excited to get some things sent over because our guys have been there for a couple of months now, and they’re really in the mix of it all. We’re looking forward to getting these supplies sent so they can hand them out to the children,” Mintz continued.

“If you consider the fact that some of these children don’t have anything, we’re starting from scratch and we’re giving them the kits that have the basic school supplies, something that’s very simple. They can receive them over and over, because obviously you use the paper, you run out; you use the pencils, you run out. We can continue to support them, continue to send the supplies so they can use them again,” she said.

Each of the kits contain a specific list of supplies: a pair of blunt-end scissors, a ruler, an eraser, colored pencils, notebook paper, a composition book, folders, a pencil bag, pencils and a sharpener, all encased in a large plastic baggy.

“The kits are standardized, this is because when Gary Sinise started the program ‘Iraqi Children,’ and now it’s called Operation International Children. It’s a standardized kit so that they can get the kit from anywhere; it’s always the same,” Helwig said. “We’re careful that the items don’t have any logos on them " that they’re as simple as possible so there is no difference between the kits they get at one time or another.”

During the first packing party, 238 kits were produced and packed up to be shipped to Afghanistan. More supplies and donations continue to roll in, and more packing parties will be scheduled soon.

“We haven’t really set a goal yet, we’re anxious to get started and get the program going,” said Mintz. “We’ve had such fantastic response so far, we’re going to have to set some goals, and I think we’re going to have to set the bar a little bit high.”

The success is thanks to not only local supporters, but friends and Family Members of Soldiers from across the country.

“Often times you’ll find a Soldier’s mother, a Soldier’s aunt, you’ll find grandparents are the ones who are not here, and they’re looking for ways to support those Soldiers. They hear about a program like this and they’re really enthusiastic. They want to help, and this is something they can really sink their teeth into,” said Mintz.

“I actually just received a call from a mother in Laguna Beach, Calif., who is a teacher, and she said she is going to take this on as a project for her school and she was going to encourage another Family Member to do the same in their school because they feel like they can do this. This is a way that they can support their Soldier,” she added.

Anyone interested in donating to the Spartan Brigade’s work on Operation Education may send monetary donations to Operation Education / Spartan Association, P.O. Box 101, Fort Drum, N.Y. 13602.

Checks should be made payable to “Operation Education / Spartan Association.”

Packaged kits and supplies can be mailed to Operation Education, ATTN: 3BCT Rear Detachment Commander, 10500 South Riva Ridge Loop, Fort Drum, N.Y. 13602.