BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — A year ago, a group of volunteers turned a burned-out restaurant on Bagram Air Field into a one-room classroom and invited area school-age children to learn math, reading and writing.
When the first “Cat in the Hat” class graduated in August, 40 area Afghan children had taken huge steps toward literacy. A new volunteer staff recently began a new school year with hopes for an even more successful program.
Army Capt. Shannon Johnson manages prisoner processing at Bagram Air Field. While her duty is important in many ways, she wanted to make a different kind of positive difference during her tour. Johnson became one of the literacy program directors and immediately began plans to expand it as much as possible.
Johnson started accepting more volunteers, and turned a storage area into another classroom. She met with local Afghan school headmasters to determine if there was more interest from families with children in the area. Before long, she got her answer: The program doubled its size to 80 students within a month.
During its first year, the “Cat in the Hat” program taught local children the English alphabet, basic reading and counting skills. But Johnson expanded the curriculum to include more advanced reading comprehension and basic math.
Johnson says her vision for the program is to benefit the “whole child.” She plans to further develop the curriculum with geography, allowing students to learn countries, continents and simple earth science, so the students better understand the world around them.
She'd like the children to identify where they live globally as well as where America and other coalition nations are, helping them understand they have had support from people all over the world.
Johnson believes the program also is beneficial for the volunteers.
“Out here in Afghanistan, this is the one day we get to see something different than a war going on around them (the volunteers). They get to see they made a difference and helped these kids.”
Volunteers were quick to agree.
Capt. Angela Joy-Radden, who leads the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing's weather team, began volunteering soon after she arrived at Bagram from Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. She attributes the program's success to the satisfaction both students and staff get from their time together.
“It brings a lot of joy to my heart, being able to interact with the children. (I) like seeing small successes when their face lights up when they get something right,” said Joy-Radden.
“I hope they see that we genuinely care. We want to interact with them in a kind way, so they see we have the best intentions. We get down to their level, on our knees, and try to do our best to help them learn. That interaction is priceless.”
Joy-Radden has seen several students begin to change the way they respond to Americans and military members.
“I was working with a little girl on writing and naming numbers. She suddenly started responding to me in her language, sharing with me how she says the numbers. She started teaching me while I'm teaching her. There was also a boy who was very quiet, shy and standoffish at first. Now that he's gotten used to me and seen the dedication and commitment, he's smiling, joking and working harder.”
Capt. Rachel Seablom, assigned to the 455 AEW's 774th Airlift Squadron based at Pope Air Force Base in Florida, is another volunteer who sees the benefits from the partnership for both teacher and student.
“They light up when we work together. It's the best part of my week, getting the positive feedback from the kids. It's fun to see the kids' progress from where they started, and how they change over the months. In the end, I hope they take home that people here want to help them and are friendly. They see us here in our military uniforms, and know that we're a friendly presence,” said Seablom.
Several volunteers give their time in other ways besides teaching. A handful of service members have painted nearly every wall in the Language Arts Center, adorning most of the classroom wall with murals of Dr. Seuss' key characters.
Tech. Sgt. Christopher Monroe is an Air Force electrical engineer assigned to Combined Joint Task Force-1 and based at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska. He says he has a special appreciation for the program because part of his military duty includes assisting the transition of the engineering mission to Afghan control. While volunteering at “Cat in the Hat,” he both works with students and takes on maintenance needs at the facility.
“This program is extremely valuable because it gives the kids a different idea of what Americans are like. Our kids might someday meet these kids. This gives them a chance to see that Americans aren't as bad as they thought they were, because we taught them to read and count,” Monroe said.
“Cat in the Hat” staff say the program shows strong promise for even further growth. Before Johnson completed her tour and returned to the United States in October, she began a third class and increased enrollment to 120 children. (Donations from families and groups in the United States continue to grow, so far keeping up with the increasing need for supplies.)
And, now, more than 300 kids' names are on the waiting list for the next class.