For nearly a year, Captain James Clancy Jr. had been in Iraq to
help bring stability to the county - leaving his father, a Social Studies
teacher in Secaucus, and his mother, a teacher in the Weehawken school district,
home and worried. Although they shared frequent communications with their son
via e-mail, they were concerned for his safety. So it was a small favor when
Captain Clancy wrote home to his father the schoolteacher asking for school
supplies for something called "Operation Pencil Box."
"He said he had seen kids sitting three to a desk, and classrooms using a 2-by-2 inch piece of shattered slate for a chalk board," the elder Clancy said last week. "This wasn't a program invented by my son. It was something his superior thought up. But my son decided to help out in between doing his missions."
The operation - which was done in conjunction with the Taskforce Iron Horse of the 4th Infantry Division Rear Detachment and the Iraqi Ministry of Education - sought to develop educational projects to restore and in many cases improve school infrastructures in Iraq.
The schools they saw were beyond run-down. There were no doors or
windows, no bathrooms, and no working electricity. Using money that was seized
from Saddam Hussein's account, the battalion began to rebuild the schools, but
still needed help getting the supplies.
"My son's superior, a major, asked him to go along with him
to one of the towns the unit was responsible for," the elder Clancy said.
"When he got there, he toured some of the schools and saw kids seated
three at the desk."
Many of the kids in school had no chalk or chalkboards, no paper or pencils, no erasers, notebooks, construction paper, rulers, scissors, glue or many of the other items American schoolchildren take for granted.
Soldiers whose unit originated at Fort Hood, Texas, began to write home to their families and friends, seeking donations. While military engineers worked to help fix up the Iraqi schools, America students, teachers and family members of the military began gathering the necessary supplies to help the schools function. Once in Iraq, the supplies would be distributed by soldiers in a gesture of good will.
In Secaucus, the elder Clancy reached out to Middle School Principal Fred Ponti who promptly mobilized the school's Student Government Organization and Builders Club. The students of both organizations waged a campaign seeking money for postage and for supplies.
"Within a week they collected more than 200 pounds of supplies," Ponti said.
Kids collected donations of cash from other kids during lunchtime, and then purchased supplies for a shipment to Iraq. Daniella Dimichino, the teacher/advisor to the Builders Club, said the kids went out and sought the donations after a joint meeting of the two clubs.
"They went through the whole school, explaining about the poor conditions in Iraq and how the students didn't even have pens or pencils," she said. "We sent letters home and received checks from parents. A lot of people got involved."
Clancy added, "These kids really rose to the occasion."