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Toys from soldiers win hearts of Iraqi children

 


Toys from soldiers win hearts of Iraqi children

March 10, 2005

A UMNS Feature
By John Gordon*

Maj. Chris Cerniauskas carries the weapons of war as he patrols the streets of Iraq, but his pockets also bulge with small, stuffed animals and toys for Iraqi children.

Thanks to his Sunday school class at First United Methodist Church of Baton Rouge, La.—and a community that embraced the idea—"Operation Stuffed Animal" has distributed more than 3,000 toys to youngsters in war-torn Iraq.

"I’m not saying a stuffed animal will save the world or will end the violence," Cerniauskas wrote in an e-mail home. "There are some very bad people over here that do horrible, horrible things. But it does show goodness, kindness (and) love of children" by Americans through the small gestures of their soldier ambassadors.

The Sunday school class came up with the idea of collecting toys but never expected such a big response from the community. Baton Rouge residents have donated boxes and boxes of toys through six drop-off sites, including First United Methodist, University United Methodist and St. Andrews United Methodist churches and a local radio station.

"There’s more toys in here than Toys R Us has, I think," said John Black, who owns a UPS Store in Baton Rouge and agreed to box the trinkets at no charge. "If we’re ever going to win their hearts and (the) minds of the world, it’s got to start with the kids."

Cerniauskas, who works for the state office of emergency preparedness in Louisiana, is deployed with the 256th Brigade Combat Team of the Louisiana National Guard and scheduled to return home at the end of 2005.

His team makes routine patrols assisting Iraqi cities with repairing water lines and roads, procuring generators for power and providing supplies. During these patrols, soldiers come in contact with Iraqi families and children, providing the perfect opportunity to hand out toys, laugh and joke.

"Chris is one of many of our soldiers who are big, tough guys, but have a big, big heart as well," said his wife, Barbara.

The toys have been a hit.

"Chris has told me that when the children see our soldiers coming, they’ll start yelling, ‘Mister, Mister,’ and have their arms outreached to see if they will have anything for the kids," said Barbara Cerniauskas. "It sort of establishes a level of trust between the children and our soldiers, just to let them know that we are there to help them and we want to help them to have a better life."

While members of their Sunday school class have been divided over the politics of invading Iraq, they have found common ground in the motivation behind Operation Stuffed Animal.

"The children are really the innocent," said Carla Ledya, a social worker. "And it was really an easy choice to do something for them. It really doesn’t matter how you feel about the war."

Soldiers report unexpected benefits of distributing toys. Several children have warned U.S. troops of dangers, such as land mines or buried bombs. Interaction with children also has been a source of joy for the soldiers themselves.

"… We ask our soldiers to do some very difficult things while they’re over here," Cerniauskas wrote home. "Handing out stuffed toys that bring happiness and smiles to beautiful children is not one of them. It makes them feel good, and they love doing it."

*Gordon is a freelance producer and writer in Marshall, Texas.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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