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Soldier Sows Seeds of Better Education

Burke man co-founds organization to help children in Afghanistan receive tools for a better education.

Maj. Todd Schmidt of Burke went to Afghanistan in 2004 to serve his country. Once he arrived, he ended up serving the Afghan children too.

The schools there had dirt floors. Some schools lacked windows and doors, and all of them lacked supplies. Daya Watkins, Schmidt's pen pal in Texas, helped him establish a donation program called Operation Dreamseed. Within a few days of putting the information on the Web site that initially linked them as pen pals, people from 12 states had responded with donations. After about two weeks, they had support from people in 46 states.

“It was snowballing,” said Watkins, a schoolteacher. “It was just incredible.”

Before Schmidt deployed, he knew he wanted to help build a good relationship between the soldiers and the Afghan communities. He spoke to his mother, a schoolteacher in Indiana, about forming a partnership between her school and an Afghan school to help send over supplies. When he arrived there, however, he realized the need was much greater.

“Part of their [the students’] day was cleaning up the grounds,” said Schmidt. “They didn’t have any school supplies.”

SINCE SOLDIERS were receiving about 100 care packages per week at his base near Khandar, Schmidt saw a way to get the word out. Soldiers are generally deployed with everything they need, said Schmidt, so if he could let senders know what supplies they really needed, he could begin to help the Afghan schools.

“We send a thank you letter to everyone who sends a package,” said Schmidt. “So we recommended that they send school supplies for the Afghan kids.”

Within a couple of weeks, the packages began pouring into Schmidt’s base. He was so thankful, and the sheer quantity of what they were receiving made Watkins and Schmidt contact an attorney to turn the program into a nonprofit organization. Donations are tax deductible, and Operation Dreamseed has now helped more than 20,000 students in the region.

“It’s been the most fabulous experience of my life,” said Watkins.

The name of the project stemmed from something Schmidt articulated. It was the perfect fit for the philanthropists.

“A dream is like a seed: it has to be nurtured and taken care of, and education is the way to do that,” said Watkins. “Todd came up with that all on his own.”

Since most of the frustrations have been a result of not having enough money to send packages, Operation Dreamseed volunteers have decided to form a marathon team to run in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, Sunday, Oct. 29. The team of four runners has been collecting sponsors for the race to raise money for the Kohak Primary School in Kandahar, a school Operation Dreamseed has dedicated itself to rebuilding and renovating.

“I think it’s an amazing program,” said Maj. Lisa Lourey, a Lorton woman on the Operation Dreamseed marathon team. “The key to building cultural understanding is through education.”

LOUREY AND SCHMIDT became friends while in a master’s degree program together at Georgetown University last year. Lourey ran 14 marathons last year in honor of her late husband, Matt, in an effort to fulfill his goal to run 50 marathons before turning 50. Lisa Lourey decided to finish her husband’s marathons for him after his Army helicopter was shot down in Iraq last year during combat. With a total of 23 marathons under her belt, Lisa Lourey's running experience is extensive. When Schmidt asked for her advice on what to do for a fund raiser, she recommended the Marine Corps Marathon.

“People really enjoy it,” said Lisa Lourey. “It’s a coveted race to run in.”

The remaining two members of the Operation Dreamseed team are flying in from California and Kansas, since the Dreamseed board members and organizers are spread throughout the country. Three of them are active duty Army, so Schmidt said they’re excited to be running in the Marine Corps Marathon. The runners have been collecting flat contributions and per-mile contributions for the 26.2 mile race. Whatever they receive will help, said Watkins, since she said it only costs about $30 a year to provide school supplies for one Afghan child.

“If [the marathon fund raiser] doesn’t work out, we’re continuously raising money for our cause,” said Schmidt.

The Kohak Primary School has already received so much from the program. Operation Dreamseed committed to a two-year program with the school, where lunches, supplies, teachers’ salaries, teacher training, curriculum and furniture are all completely paid for by the organization.

“Providing books with valid historical information is going to help these children,” said Lourey.

To continue the second year, they need about $80,000 more. They’re hoping a lot of it will come from the marathon. Based on the financial success of this project, Schmidt said the organization would be willing to sponsor another school as well. Watkins is optimistic it can happen.

“He [Todd] has a lot of vision. He sees something and he has the ability to make it happen,” said Watkins. “He has to be one of the most positive people I have ever known.”