The pale brown sashes fell loosely over the tiny, hunched shoulders of Brownie Scout Troop 1277. Each sling bore hard-won badges in the battle for record-high cookie sales and good deeds.
But the 7- and 8-year-olds were now up to their elbows in a mission of global impact: Operation Desert Heart.
Clustered around a long table laden with paper, glue and markers,the 12 Brownies cut huge red hearts and flowers from construction paper and doilies at Swansfield Elementary School in Columbia.
They attached the designs to cards and poems to be sent this past Friday to American soldiers stationed in the gulf for Valentine's Day.
"We're doing it so people in Saudi Arabia can celebrate, too," said Devon Crosbie, 7. Glitter-sprinkled Katy Mae Paulson, 7, agreed. "We justwant to cheer them up."
Jane Maddox, 47, Brownie troop leader andpresident of Library Consultants Inc. in Columbia explained that each week, two Brownies are appointed as "feeling finders," reporting atthe following meeting the feelings the two experienced over the pastweek.
"In the last few weeks, something has come up in those discussions about the war," she said. "They are concerned about the troops. I thought this would be a good way to express their feelings in a positive way."
Maddox explained to the children the importance of showing those concerns to the troops even though they are not relatedto them.
"We discussed that whoever is over, there is someone's father, brother or uncle and appreciate how much those people are missed," said Maddox.
Melanie Erb, 7, designed her valentine because the troops are so far away. "The soldiers are not with the people theylive with. They're away from home. We're doing it to make them feel good."
The children were not limited to composing cards. It could be a "letter, valentine, poem -- anything just to remember them on Valentine's Day," said Maddox.
Materials for the project were supplied from the 50-cents weekly dues from troop members and from a portion of the cookie-sale profits.
The only requirement was they be handmade. "They're supposed to be putting a little of their heart into what they are sending," explained Maddox.
The troop also placed a large aluminum-foil covered box decorated with hearts in the front office of Swansfield Elementary, where 11 of the Brownies attend second grade.
"With the situation of the troops, we wanted to do something to let them know they're loved and missed. Then the girls said 'theother girls in school would like to do this, too.' So we called the school to coordinate it," said Maddox.
Assistant Principal BarbaraFagan agreed to the joint-project while Cindy Taliano, mother of trooper Sara, did all the leg work, getting the box ready and coordinating the program with the school.
"I thought it would be a nice opportunity to do something for the troops, said Fagan. "In some classes,they sent letters and received replies. There was an interest to do this."
Maddox agreed. "I can't imagine there won't be everybody doing something -- even if they just write a note on a loose-leaf paper."
Fagan explained that some classes would work on the valentines together in school and others would prepare them at home. "It is completely up to the teacher."
She emphasized that the project is voluntary, "just like they do for their own valentines."
Fagan noted that while some of the school children have relatives in the gulf and many students have participated in letter-writing campaigns, "generally, we keep it low-key."
Fagan felt that the holiday offered the students a better opportunity to show their concern.
"Valentine's Day is a big day for children in elementary school, a way of sharing something they enjoy that is special to them. We thought this was something they could participate in on their level, something that would be a fun and caring thing to do.
"And," she pointed out, "it did come from this group of children."