American Forces Press Service
Feb. 6, 2008 - An organization led by a U.S. Army officer is helping children in Iraq and Afghanistan know the joy that Beanie Baby toys bring to so many American kids. "Beanies for Baghdad" began in 2003 while its president, Lt. Col. James Barker, was serving in Iraq.
"During our 'walkabouts' in the community, there were children (with) no toys of their own," Barker said.
On one of these missions, Barker encountered Sara, a young Iraqi girl with whom he tried to talk. She remained hesitant until Barker remembered the small stuffed bear named Courage that his sister had sent him. He pulled it from his pocket and presented it to the little girl, whose reaction to the gift inspired Barker to do more.
"When we got back from the mission that afternoon, I sent an e-mail to a Web site for Beanie Baby enthusiasts (asking) them to send Beanie Babies to me so that we could hand them out to Iraqi children," Barker said. "Within the first four or five days, there were about 2,000 Beanie Babies on their way to me for distribution."
Barker headed home in June 2003 but left the distribution portion of the program in good hands with Army Staff Sgt. Kirk Wallace.
"It's a great privilege to be able to give these children and families gifts, to see the joy on their faces and to know we have made a true impression that Americans care," he said. "We explain to the Iraqis that the gifts are from individual Americans for individual Iraqis and we, as soldiers, are just being the deliverymen."
Barker and his team understand that there's more at stake than just a few smiles over some cute toys, however.
"You never know the future of these children," he said. "Twenty or 30 years from now, one of these kids may be a prime minister or a regional leader, and that child will remember the kindness and generosity of a soldier ... who stopped and went out of their way and gave them a toy."
Since Beanies for Baghdad started, more than 1 million huggable comrades have reinforced Courage in his mission to brighten the lives of children in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The program doesn't stop at stuffed animals, however. Over the years, warm clothing, shoes, school supplies, and snacks for the children have been added to the shipments, which also include care packages for servicemembers.
"Many of these little ones live in extreme poverty," said Donna Ward, who has served as program manager since January 2005. "A Beanie Baby or a small (toy) car means the world to them. Many have never seen a toy, and the small gesture of kindness between the soldiers and children bring long-lasting friendships and the hopes of a better tomorrow."
Starting with just one small stuffed animal and two soldiers, Beanies for Baghdad is now part of a larger network of troop-support groups affiliated with "America Supports You," a Defense Department program. America Supports You connects citizens and companies with servicemembers and their families serving at home and abroad.
"We are proud to be (affiliated) with America Supports You," Ward said. "We hope that this (relationship) will enable us to reach more individuals about ... how they can help our soldiers make a difference."