Local Brownies aiding Iraqi kids

The girls in Brownie Troop 348 are thrilled to make a difference in the Middle East

Fred Contrada
Springfield Republican
October 1, 2006

NORTHAMPTON - The exchange rate was nothing short of miraculous. With $75 and a heaping portion of good will, a Brownie troop based at Jackson Street Elementary School has helped start an after-school art program for Iraqi refugees and other children in Jordan.

The international Brownie project grew out of a local initiative called "Books Building Bridges," sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee of Western Massachusetts. In that initiative, local bookstores collected books to send to Baghdad in an effort to strengthen ties between people in the two countries. Claudia Lefko, an activist who had traveled to Iraq on several occasions to bring art supplies to young students, thought there should be a children's component to the project and sent out fliers soliciting help. Brownie Troop 348 was quick to respond.

"They heard about it and approached me," Lefko said.

Troop leader Jeanne T. Almanzar said she and fellow leader Jennifer Hunter had been looking for a service project for the dozen Brownies in their troop when they came upon Lefko's flier last spring.

"We wanted to do something with the money we earned from selling cookies," she said. "We decided the Iraqi Children's Art Project might be a good way to do it."

In addition to donating the proceeds from the sale of their cookies, the Brownies made and laminated bookmarks to send to the children in the Middle East.

Because the violence in Iraq had increased since her last visit, Lefko thought it would be safer to travel to Jordan and try to help Iraqi children whose families had fled to that country. With the $75 and some artwork she had solicited from local students, she left for Amman, the capital, at the end of August.

In a stroke of luck, Lefko met Father Nabil Haddad, a Melchite priest and the executive director of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center. Haddad was looking for ways to help the estimated 500,000 Iraqi refugees in his country, and one major need was education.

"We hatched a plan to start an arts-based school program for out-of-school children at his church," Lefko said. "It would be open to children of any religion."

Within a week, Lefko and Haddad organized a group of volunteers to clean out some unused rooms behind his church. The rooms opened onto a spacious patio surrounded by palm trees, offering a picturesque setting for an arts program. Haddad brought on a young Iraqi artist and another Iraqi man to coordinate the program. He also matched the $75 in seed money from the Brownie troop with his own funds.

When on Sept. 10 the after-school program opened, 10 children and some 30 adults showed up to see what it was all about, said Lefko. Since then, the turn-out has been steadily increasing. Lefko hopes to build on the program through her own project, which involves exchanging student art between the two countries.

The Brownies were gratified to receive a letter from Father Haddad thanking them for their help. In it, he wrote, "I want you to know that this little money meant to be a great and gracious contribution for a noble and big-time program. With your support for the children from this troubled Middle East, we were able, Claudia and I, to start this school, 'Children Talk and Learn Through Art.'

"Thank you so much on behalf of these children who will be your partners in building peace in this world. Through art we will contribute to achieve this objective."

Almanzar said neither she nor the girls ever dreamed that they could do so much good with such a modest donation.

"We just couldn't imagine this little project taking off to be something so special," she said. "They made a difference for kids in a way they can understand."