'Gifts of the Heart' sought for Bosnia Aid official makes plea in Carroll County for health, school items

July 22, 1996|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Gift bags, filled with items as ordinary as shampoo and toothpaste, are showing millions in need of everything that the world cares.

The Gifts of the Heart kits provide hope, health, warmth and comfort to the people of war-torn Bosnia.

"A gift to an elderly woman says somebody in America is thinking about her," said Ivica Stankovic, associate director of Church World Service in Metkovic, Croatia.

At Brethren Service Center in Carroll County Friday, Stankovic described the aid program. He spoke of the dangers and rewards of delivering aid to embattled towns, refugee camps and makeshift schoolrooms. He showed pictures of his bullet-riddled truck and fellow relief workers dressed in bulletproof vests.

The 28-year-old soldier-turned-humanitarian remembers the first ZTC time he delivered a health kit to a refugee family living in an abandoned railroad car in Croatia. The mother immediately cut the single bar of bath soap into quarters so she could use it sparingly.

"She had no idea when another bar of soap would come," he said.

Since 1993, Stankovic has delivered more than $10 million in food and humanitarian aid and seen many poignant reactions to the simplest gifts.

When he was first offered the director's job three years ago, he was a discharged soldier recovering from war wounds. He did not want to return to the battle area, but reluctantly agreed to lead one relief convoy into Bosnia.

He has since led 276 convoys, often into a war zone.

"My first trip as a humanitarian made me see all that suffering through eyes other than a soldier's," he said. "I saw the people who had lived in the bombed buildings and the orphans who had lost the love and protection of parents."

He uses slides and videos to emphasize the reasons for the relief effort and never hesitates to ask for more donations.

"I came to tell people here why we need them," Stankovic said. Although the fighting has ended, he said the rebuilding effort is a monumental task. "More than 60 percent of the country is totally destroyed," he said.

Many of the gift bags originated in Baltimore, where schoolchildren decorated them with hearts and endearing messages. This week, high school students from Baltimore are volunteering at the warehouse in New Windsor. They will fill bags with items unavailable in Bosnia, where scarcity is the norm.

The center will pack hundreds of kits into containers and ship them to Bosnia and other crisis areas in the world.

"Don't think these kits are nothing," Stankovic said. "When a small village in Bosnia heard a shipment was coming, thousands lined up for them."

Food must come first for people struggling to survive. Clothing, especially shoes -- Stankovic has delivered 11,000 pairs -- is a close second. But, once the basic needs are met, people can begin to think beyond survival to the future.

The Brethren Center has shipped more than 100,000 school kits, filled with classroom supplies, to Bosnia. Stankovic has many photographs of smiling children receiving the presents from the United States.

"I tell them that somebody their same age lives in a place where there is no war, and they made the gifts for them," he said. "They are so happy because finally they have something of their own."

For "parents determined to press ahead with educating their children," the school kits are allowing schooling to resume. "Only through education can there be understanding and forgiveness," Stankovic said.

During his stay in the United States, he tells community groups and humanitarian organizations that no gift is too small and that the collections of gifts must continue.

"There is a way to help, and I will find the people who need the help," he said.

Stankovic has one other mission. He wants the 2 million refugees who fled the war in Bosnia to return. The country suffered a depletion of its intellectual resources, which could severely hamper rebuilding efforts.

"We want them to come back and help us," he said. "For everyone, there is only one home in the world. Nowhere are the sea, the sunset and the land as beautiful as home."

Pub Date: 7/22/96

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