As I looked upon the group of American soldiers, small children, and members of the local community gathering together on the hill for a final group photo after a long day of hard work in the Latvian countryside, I couldn’t help but feel touched and be energized by what we accomplished together.
This group of 85 American soldiers and engineers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade is deployed to Latvia as part of our European Reassurance initiative to enhance ongoing military-to-military relationships and demonstrate assurance of America's commitment to its NATO allies. Most days the company is busy with military training exercises with their Latvian counterparts. However, recently they took a day to travel to a small town to transform the lives of individuals living in a country home called Zvannieki.
Zvannieki is an alternative family home for Latvian children from impoverished and abusive backgrounds, and is run by volunteers who work to reestablish the feeling of home, family, and security for its 30 residents. The home survives entirely on private donations, and to meet its winter heating needs, Zvannieki home depends on generous donations of firewood from neighboring homes or the collection of large amounts of wood by the older children.
During the visit, I witnessed soldiers marching deep into a nearby forest and efficiently marking each tree to be felled. The constant buzzing of chainsaws could be heard all day long as these soldiers worked tirelessly to chop down trees for firewood. Large trucks were filled with these wooden stumps and hauled from the forest to the home, unloaded and stacked in piles as high as the house! Juris Calitis, head of the home, said how touched he was to see American soldiers participate in the Latvian tradition of “Malkas Talka” or “bringing in the firewood.” At the end of the day, he couldn’t believe his eyes and said that the wood collected would heat the home for at least two years!
Back at the home, the engineers were busy with levels, measuring tape, and heavy machinery planning and digging a foundation for a poultry barn which would keep the chickens out of harm’s way (foxes). Since running water only reaches the main house on the property, the engineers also dug several hundred meters of plumbing shafts for PVC piping that would allow water to be transported to the other two houses.
Everyone pitched in to make this event possible. The Embassy community donated gently used clothing, books, and toys, as well as funds to purchase cement, gravel, and fuel for the chainsaws. Many volunteered their time to help in whatever way was needed that day to cut down trees, play with the children, and prepare meals. At lunch, everyone sat together at long picnic tables under trees by a playground. Much like a traditional family, they broke from their work later that evening and also ate dinner together. Once the work was completed, the soldiers taught the children some basketball tricks and played soccer with them in the field.
It was heartwarming to see the U.S. military and U.S. Embassy community volunteers working together with Latvian partners to provide much needed assistance to this alternative family home in our host nation. What the group accomplished in one day will benefit the children that live there for years to come and will further solidify the strong U.S.-Latvia partnership.
About the Author: Danielle Korshak serves as the Assistant Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Riga, Latvia.