The grounds of the school in Afghanistan where students linger each week to chat with their Glenelg Country School friends via webcam are riddled with buried landmines, the lethal souvenirs of decades of war.
Risking life and limb hasn't deterred the group of boys from Roshan High School in Laghman Province from staying past sunset to exchange ideas with their American counterparts on the other side of the world, local organizers say.
But the Afghan students' dire situation weighs heavily on the minds of the Howard County youths in the school's communications project who can't fathom living in a perpetually war-ravaged country.
With their family's two dogs serving as inspiration, Taylor and Carly Feld, both students at the private school, came up with a silly solution to the deadly serious situation in Afghanistan and 70 other countries around the world.
"Strut Your Mutt," a dog show that's the antithesis of the straight-laced Westminster Kennel Club contest, is being organized by the sisters for Saturday, May 8, as a fun way to raise funds toward putting a mine-detecting dog to work. Hidden landmines killed 5,197 people last year alone, they said, and many others were injured.
"We were sitting on our front porch a few weeks ago, and we felt kind of resentful that we'd never put on the dog show since we had the idea a long time ago," said Taylor, who's in the sixth grade at GCS. "So we decided to follow through this time."
The girls' mutts — Chance, a boxer mix, and Nina, a Chihuahua mix — will take part with their owners.
The fundraiser will mark the school's second effort to support the work of the Marshall Legacy Institute, a Virginia-based nonprofit organization that is "working to eliminate the evils mines inflict upon innocent people, animals and communities," according to its website.
Organizers of the institute's K9 Demining Corps Campaign said they hope to start detecting programs in Vietnam and Angola this year. Dogs are trained to sniff out the scent of explosives in the mines, which are made mostly of plastic and therefore invisible to metal detectors, the website explains.
Two years ago, Shelby Patrick, who is also a sixth-grader at the school, initiated a successful campaign to fund a mine-detecting dog for the institute's Children Against Mines Program, which is nicknamed CHAMPS.
The school managed to raise $6,000 and the Patrick family funded the difference, said Kimberly McCasland, CHAMPS director. The dog was named Dragon for Glenelg's mascot and sent to work in Afghanistan.
"Glenelg Country School has embraced this program and the students have taken it further to ask what happens to kids who have already been hurt by landmines," McCasland said.
Dragon's assignment was the start of a series of coincidental connections at the school, she said, adding that the students, faculty and families have also raised funds to purchase prosthetic limbs, wheelchairs and other assistance for landmine victims.
When notified where Dragon would be working, school officials asked Afghanistan-born teacher Linar Etemadi if she'd be interested in participating in the project. It turned out the fourth-grade instructor had been hoping for just such an opportunity.
"I am proud of my country, yet I was one of the privileged ones who were able to get out and go to America to start fresh," said Etemadi, who said one of her long-ago ancestors was the first Afghan king.
"How could I not help if given the means by a higher power?" she asked, adding that she believes that all people are brothers and sisters who are guided by the same set of values.
So Etemadi jumped at the chance and after starting the communications project she recently formed the Building Bridges Club, an after-school group that meets on Mondays with the goals of providing humanitarian aid through fundraising, educating others and gaining leadership skills. Shelby and Taylor are both members.
"The universe wanted our separate paths to have a common endpoint," she said. "Both of the Feld girls have such genuine spirits, and while their dog show may seem like a small idea, it will make a big difference."
Carly, who works with her mother, Tracy Feld, on Carly's Dog Blog, said she "really wants to get another mine-sniffing dog."
A natural salesperson and outgoing child, the third-grader has been doing a lot of the legwork while Taylor has competently handled the computer end of the preparations, Tracy said. So far, contest prizes include an iPod Touch, a bike, dog obedience classes and tickets to the Columbia Festival of the Arts this summer.
Awards will be given out in such categories as Most Patriotic, Best Owner-Pet Duo, and Best Movie or Book Themed Costume. There will be an obedience contest and tricks for pets and humans, among other events.
Taylor confessed to being "a little nervous" about the turnout, but both she and Carly are mostly optimistic.