From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

Coats for Kosovo

Compassion is the chief law of human existence.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

My son was deployed to Kosovo in 1999, and he phoned home shortly after arriving at Camp Monteith in the eastern section of the country. The call was relayed through Germany and then sent to an army post in the United States before being patched through to my house. He spoke enthusiastically about his base camp and his new job, but there was concern in his voice when he told me about the Kosovar children.

“They’d break your heart, Mom, if you could see them.

When we drive through town, they stand in the streets in their frayed coats and worn shoes and wave at us as we pass by. Smiles cover their faces, but it’s so cold. And they don’t have warm clothing to wear.”

When he called the following week, the children were still on his mind. “They need coats, Mom. Maybe some of the people from church could send their kids’ used clothing.”

Ironically, our parish had sponsored a refugee family from Kosovo. Many people had worked to resettle the eleven Albanians by donating food, clothing and money to help them get back on their feet. I hated to ask the parishioners to do more, and so I failed to respond to Joseph’s request. He was quick to remind me of the need for action when we spoke the next time.

“The snowdrifts are more than five feet high,” he said. “The children play outside, yet it’s freezing. And they have so little.”

Wood-burning stoves had been sent in by the relief services, and his unit had distributed them to the people in the area. They were working with the town’s mayor to build a market and to get an old mine back in operation. But it was the children who continued to tug at Joseph’s heart.

“They’re cold and don’t have enough to wear. Won’t someone send coats?”

No longer able to ignore his insistent pleas, I arranged a notice in our church bulletin. A few hours after returning home from Mass that Sunday, the phone rang.

“I have coats,” a woman said. “Tell me where to mail them.” Another call soon followed. “I’ll clean out my kids’ closets and drop the things off at church.”

One woman approached me later that week. “I found a coat on sale,” she said as she slipped it into my hands. Fire-engine red with black diagonal stripes, the jacket was water-repellent and down-filled. “It’s only one coat but . . . ,” she shrugged, “maybe it will help.”

A friend who always puts words into action and responds quickly to the needs of others canvassed her neighborhood. “I have eight shopping bags filled with coats,” she told me over the phone.

I smiled at her success. “Bring them over. We’ll box them up and mail them together.” The clothing was in good condition and would provide warmth even in the coldest weather. As we carefully tucked the coats into boxes, we prayed for the children who would wear them and for their protection in the midst of conflict.

Ten days later, the phone rang, and I heard Joseph’s voice. “The boxes have started to arrive. The coats are perfect, Mom. The kids will love them.”

My son wasn’t the only one seeking help for the children. Many of the other soldiers’ families were sending donations. Joseph’s company commander’s wife, a mother with three little ones, sent gloves and hats along with coats. Clothing was pouring in from the battalion chaplain’s stateside congregation.

Then, to my surprise, digital photos arrived as an attachment to Joe’s e-mail. I downloaded them onto a disc and eagerly opened the file. Slowly the photos unfolded across my monitor. I saw a muddy road and bullet-scarred walls and the faces of beautiful children receiving gifts from the United States. I didn’t need to hear their voices, for their eyes—filled with amazement at the bounty they had been given—said it all. And there was Joseph in the midst of them, dressed in a Kevlar helmet, bulletproof vest and mud-smeared boots, with an M-16 rifle slung over his shoulder and a wide smile plastered on his full face.

“Tell the people at church how much their gifts mean to the children, Mom. They’re the greatest!”

Debby Giusti

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