Fifth Graders Send Teddy Bears to Afghanistan

A group of fifth graders in Southern California find a way to show Afghan children that "there are people that care about them."

AJ Golden is adorable. There's no getting around it.

AJ is almost 2-years-old and is in that stage where he is simultaneously shy and rambunctious. Everyday he learns something new, or does something new. It is the kind of time parents know they will never get back.

AJ's mom, Rebecca, says her son is a lot like his father. Both are tall, and have similar eyes. Both are stubborn.

When AJ's father, U.S. Army Sergeant Peter Golden, left for Afghanistan last summer, AJ was almost 1-year-old. Just crawling. Now, AJ runs all over -- and he likes to smell the flowers. Rebecca says that being away from AJ is the most difficult part of Peter's yearlong tour of duty.

"AJ's changing everyday doing things everyday differently. Talking more, running more, climbing things," Rebecca said.

Rebecca says that being a dad has changed her husband. That he is really focused on living life to the fullest. Peter is an army medic. It is a job he loves, but working in a military hospital in a combat zone has given him an up-close look at some of the most difficult aspects of war.

In an e-mail to NBC4, Peter Golden writes, "I have always liked to think of myself as a compassionate person but with the addition of AJ to my little family, I feel an even greater duty to these children."

The children he is referring to are the some of the war's youngest victims. Local Afghan children -- innocent boys and girls -- wounded while trying to grow up in a war zone.

Peter and Rebecca are able to communicate regularly via e-mail and Skype.

"He told me stories of what happens over there to the children and it was heartbreaking to me," Rebecca said.
 
Much of the challenge is in the cultural differences.

"When these children come to our hospital they are nervous and unsure. They are being treated by strangers, who dress and act differently than they are accustomed. There is a language barrier that can make soothing them all the more difficult," Peter writes.

Rebecca is empathetic for the children, and her husband: "He can't explain to these kids that they're going to be OK, and we're here to help. So the kids get very frightened."

Rebecca had been thinking about all of this as she was getting the yard ready for AJ. A sandbox. A slide. A heap of toys. She began to think about how her son had so much, and many of these children had nothing.  She thought about what might be helpful to kids who were sick or scared, or both. And then she found inspiration snuggled up next to her son:

Stuffed animals.

Rebecca believes it's just human nature to "want to hold onto something cuddly and soft if we're not feeling well."  So Rebecca asked family and friends for new or slightly used stuffed animals. The plan was to gather up about 30 animals to send over to Peter, who would then distribute the animals to the children.  One e-mail to friends led to forwarded e-mails to friends of friends and then, to Calista.

Calista Yakhaman is an unstoppable force. She is motivated. She is organized. She is 10-years-old.

"The thing is I'm really giving. I like sharing with people and I don't like to see people sad. It's just a natural thing I was born with is helping people out," Calista said.

Calista then recruited her classmates at Sunland Elementary School and a two-week long Teddy Bear drive began. Calista has been involved in charitable activities before, and it is apparent that these efforts mean a lot to her: "The world is just like a big family and we should help each other out."

Afghanistan is a complicated situation. It's politics and history is too much for many adults to understand, let alone kids. When asked by NBC4's Ana Garcia if he knew where Afghanistan was, Nathan Kosoy honestly replied, "I do not have any idea where Afghanistan is."

Nathan got some help from his classmate, Conner Durkin.

"Afghanistan is in the Middle East. Sort of. It's next to Iraq and Iran," Conner said.

While these fifth graders don't necessarily understand the details of the conflict there, they do understand the basics.

"Since there's a war going on, there's probably people who lost a lot of stuff," Jesus Martinez said.

"Afghanistan is now a very sad place," Nathan said.

And of course, these fifth graders know what it means to just be a kid, and to be scared. They get why a stuffed animal would make a difference. Kaitlyn Ahmu donated five teddy bears because she "wanted the children to feel happy and know that there are people that care about them."

Kenneth Ramirez donated 10 teddy bears because he knows some Afghan children may have lost their home or members of their family, and the stuffed animals "would make them feel better."

So the students went home and looked in their bedrooms and basements, in closets and trunks. They found: elephants; dragons; Shrek; Eeyore; Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and of course, bunches and bunches of bears. In just two weeks, this small school of approximately 530 students, collected 350 stuffed animals.

"I think her actions are a representation of what our school community here is like, because there's many Calista's here with different names," said Sunland principal Lisa Dachs-Ornelas, who added that she is very proud of Calista's efforts.

In the end, it took more than a carload to get all the animals over to Rebecca Golden.

Rebecca was shocked: "I was overwhelmed I was grateful."

Rebecca combined the donations from the Sunland Elementary students with donations from family and friends. Peter Golden's father works at the Long Beach Aquarium, and they donated a sea of seahorses.  In total, Rebecca has almost 500 stuffed animals to send over to Afghanistan.

The problem now is shipping.

This is a much bigger shipment than she had planned on. Shipping six boxes to the other side of the world can get costly. Rebecca has two big boxes packaged up and ready to go. She just needs some help working out the final logistics and financing.

Peter Golden's mother, Nancy O'Rourke, says this has been a wonderful experience for their whole family and an example of the power of "a few good hearts." This is a family with deep military roots. They understand that "freedom isn't free" and a project like this gives many people an opportunity to participate.

"No matter how discouraging times can be, people are indomitable. They just want positive good happy hopeful and if they are given an outlet to do something positive they will," Nancy said. "They will jump on board. Very colorfully."

Rebecca and Nancy are hopeful that these animals will arrive in Afghanistan before Peter's tour ends. They would like to be able to share with Sunland students' photos of where their animals have landed. They would like the children here to see the faces of the children they helped.

Now, while Nathan may not know where Afghanistan is, it seems this experience has still been an invaluable lesson.

"Giving to me now means you give something because you want to give, not because you want something back in return," Nathan said.

And what a gift that is.

Rebecca Golden may be reached via email.

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