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BAGRAM SCHOOL GRADUATES FIRST CLASS OF AFGHAN CHILDREN

(Left to right) U.S. Army Capt. Elizabeth Cantrell, U.S. Army Col. Gary G.K. Kamauoha and U.K. Brig. Felix G. Gedney, present a student of the Cat in the Hat Language Arts Center with her diploma during the first graduation ceremony of the center at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, Aug. 26, 2012. [Photo: Staff Sgt. Derek M. Smith]

BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan -- Forty-three Afghan children became the first class to graduate from the Cat in the Hat Language Arts Center at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, Aug. 26, 2012.

Organizers founded the center in October, 2011 with the mission "to empower the children of the Bagram and Parwan Provinces of Afghanistan by providing a nurturing, safe learning environment in which they are not only educated but inspired to bring change to the country as the pioneers and stakeholders of its prosperity."

School-aged children from the community are taught subjects such as conversational English, the alphabet, numbers and animals. The students attend gender-specific classes in the sheltered environment of BAF twice a week.

The well-received program was established upon the request from local elders to help teach their children English. The school operates solely on volunteers and donations to the program.

"The Cat in the Hat Language Arts Center started as a vision in October 2011 to help educate Afghan children with the assistance of civilians and American soldiers," explained U.S. Army Capt. Elizabeth Cantrell, battalion adjutant for the 122nd Aviation Support Battalion, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, and military program director for the center. "It has blossomed to so much more than just a vision. We have structured reading, interactive time, professional educators that volunteer, and most of all, a lot of fun."

"Education is the light of knowledge; a light that no darkness of war can defeat or overcome," Cantrell continued. "[The students] have proven that under the right guidance and environment, that they too can learn and apply these tools to their everyday life."

The all-volunteer staff is a true coalition of service members from varying positions on post who contribute in whatever form they can. Volunteers act as educators, perform maintenance, painting, supply and a variety of other roles.

"It's a great experience," said Royal New Zealand Air Force Sgt. Terraine Hollis, an administrator for the New Zealand National Support Element. "We still have much to do." Hollis spent countless hours painting rooms in the center, including murals with various Dr. Seuss characters in theme with the center's motif.

A common profession from volunteers was the desire to help the children and provide a brighter future, starting with education.

"I wanted to help out doing something more than what I was doing with my job," explained Spc. Taylor A. Daniel, logistics coordinator for the 411th Engineer Brigade, Joint Task Force Empire. "[The center] provides them a sense of partnership and caring. Those kids haven't developed [a preconceived] opinion; they're living. If we can help have a progressive future for Afghanistan, we should do that."

Daniel, an Athens, Ga. native, said he sees the center as one way to build the country up from a children's perspective. As the children concluded the activities of their graduation day, their smiles and beaming excitement contrasted the volunteers' solemn happiness. The bittersweet day closed one chapter of the center, but the educators, like the students, looked toward what tomorrow would bring.

The center's mission will continue, as the resolve of the volunteers was reaffirmed by the accomplishments displayed this day.



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