PRISTINA, Serbia and Montenegro, April 22, 2005 -- As the last note of music ended, screams and laughter suddenly interrupted the brief moment of silence. Air Force Maj. Brian Benson quickly sat down, but slid off the edge of his seat in favor of a young girl eager to remain in the game of musical chairs.
Benson, currently serving at Kosovo Force Headquarters at NATO Base Film City, chose to be the loser of the game, but he and dozens of other American servicemembers here are winners nonetheless through their efforts to be positive role models to the more than 250 children, ages 6 to 16, enrolled at the Pristina Mother and Child Center.
According to Merita Bajςinca, coordinator of the center, which specializes in caring for children who lost parents during the war, these kids love participating in a variety of special recreational and educational activities. But they especially relish what they consider "playtime" each week with Americans serving in KFOR.
Since 1999, rotations of airmen, Marines, soldiers and sailors have answered the call to take on the mission of bringing cheer to these children who are dealing with lingering effects of the Kosovo conflict.
Whether it's been playing games, providing school supplies, maintaining the facilities, fixing the playground or sponsoring holiday parties, everyone involved has benefited from joining the project, said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Kevin Kennedy, the current American coordinator of the weekly visits.
Kennedy, a native of Muncie, Ind., said the Americans that visit the center do so for the chance to have fun, share their love, and affect the children's lives in a good way. "I couldn't pass it up," he said. "Kids understand kindness," Kennedy said. "And just like American children, they love it when adults show them respect and just spend time with them."
Ramize Arifi, an 11-year-old girl, and William Avdiu, a 10-year-old boy, stood in front of the center April 15 when the KFOR vehicles arrived for another visit. Both children were among many who eagerly accepted candy that the airmen who were on this particular mission had to offer. In broken English, grinning with a layer of chocolate around their mouths, they said they really like their American friends.
For Air Force Capt. Laura Bunyan, who works at the U.S. National Intelligence Cell, also at NATO Base Film City, the feeling is mutual. The day of that visit she passed out sweet treats to the kids, interacted with young girls coloring, played games in the center and then spoke afterward about her experience.
The Northridge, Calif., native said she simply had fun. "I enjoy being able to interact with the children and seeing their delight in sharing their activities with us," Bunyan said. "It is as much fun for the servicemembers as the kids at the center."
Bunyan said she volunteers there because it is an excellent opportunity to give a little back to the community she is currently serving in and because of the good it is doing for the children. "Hopefully, our participation provides enjoyment to the children and improves their time at the center."
The Pristina Mother and Child Center, a non-government organization, is dependent on donations and volunteer assistance to continue providing a home away from home for the youngsters, who come from foster or single-parent homes. This fact does not escape the minds of the American volunteers when they spend time with the children there each week.
Benson, who routinely visits the center, said he knows how much he misses his family and children during his deployment to Kosovo, so he can't fully imagine what these children must be feeling having lost a loved one.
The major, a native of O'Fallon, Ill., said he just tries to play with the kids and to let them know he is their friend. When he sees smiles on the children's faces and when they wave as they recognize him, he feels as if he has helped them cope with their situation in some small way, Benson said.
"Kids are kids no matter where you go," he said. "The more positive impact we can have early on in their lives the better they will personally be, and hopefully they will be able to help shape the future of Kosovo."
(Air Force Master Sgt. Lee Roberts is a press officer for Kosovo Force.)