BOLESŁAWIEC, Poland –
BOLESŁAWIEC, Poland – U.S. Soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division on rotation in Europe collected and donated gifts to children at the Dom Dziecka P.W. Sw. Jozefa Zgromadzenia Sióstr Elżbietanek, the Orphanage of St. Joseph of the Congregation of the Elizabethan Sister, in Bolesławiec, Poland on Dec. 1, 2022.
In early October, the plan to conduct a toy drive came to fruition after U.S. Army Capt. Dennis Stene, a chaplain assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 1 ID, overheard U.S. Army Lt. Col. Rich West, chaplain also assigned to the 1 ID, on a phone call discussing orphanages in the area. Soon after this they constructed a plan alongside Mrs. Angela Melizia, the Red Cross lead and Sister Agnes, the head nun who runs the home, in order to allow Soldiers the opportunity to gather presents and give back during the holiday season.
“We are very happy to have you guys here,” said Marietta, the main caretaker at the orphanage. “They told us there were going to be guests today, but they didn’t tell us who.”
Since many Soldiers are away from their own families, Stene had a feeling many would jump at the opportunity to donate gifts to children at the orphanage.
“We put the word out and Soldiers from all over the unit here across the board were excited to give,” said Stene. “We can’t be with our own families at this time so it was really precious just to find ways to provide that same joy to other kids.”
To some degree, it would seem that Soldiers were too at the receiving end. Not with gifts in the physical sense, but with a present cloaked in invisible wrapping.
“In a unique way, I think the kids weren’t so much strangers to us, as we were to them because they started off as a name and an age on a piece of paper,” said Stene. “I imagine we were forming relationships with these kids before ever really meeting them.”
Stene recalls Soldiers trying to picture what the children were like and what they’d want to play with. Soldiers reflected on their own families and childhood experiences as they brainstormed gift ideas.
Inside the orphanage, painted in a framed picture hung on a wall near the entrance are the words “od serca dla serca,” a Polish phrase meaning “from the heart for the heart.” Another phrase, written in small white threading on one teenager's purple sweatshirt, read “we all start as strangers.”
After a brief and timid introduction, where both parties stood at opposing corners of the room, the groups merged.
“It’s such a joy to be here with you since our families are back home,” said Sgt. 1st Class Maggie Stokes, the enlisted aide to the commanding general, 1 ID.
Soon, pandemonium took hold as the children unwrapped puzzles, soccer balls and candy galore. There were Legos, small dinosaurs, nerf guns and more. Children peered through binoculars, tried on winter hats and as a pair of toddlers sent plastic golf balls screaming across the floor someone ducking shouted, “fore!”
“Oh, no,” said Marietta, who has two children of her own, as she watched one child unwrap a gift that stood nearly two feet tall.
“Oh, yes,” said the young boy, smiling as he unwrapped a construction truck set.
Presents that were tightly wrapped in colorful paper were shaken before they were opened. Trash bags once filled with gifts to the point of bursting, were transmuted in a matter of minutes, bulging with discarded scraps of wrapping paper.
“I remember wrapping that gift,” said Stokes at one point during the frenzy.
Today, the Orphanage of St. Joseph houses 22 children from the Bóbr River in the Lower Silesian Voivodeship which includes Bolesławiec and the surrounding area. Children staying at home are given the opportunity to stay past their 18th birthday should they find opportunities to work and pursue advanced education.
“For Soldiers to recognize someone in need and to exercise their own compassion to meet that need feels good, it raises our morale,” said Stene. “The turnout was great, even at the last minute people were asking to see if we had everything and if we had enough.”
Orphaned children are often removed from their parental home for various reasons including poverty, parental unemployment, neglect or abuse. A 2009 study conducted by international social workers suggested that in Poland there were 19,135 orphan children living in residential care institutions. During an interview conducted on a Polish Radio station in November, Barbara Socha, the deputy family and social policy minister, claimed there are approximately 20,000 children living under the care of state institutions often referred to as orphanages.
“It’s always hard seeing new children,” said Eolyte, who was one of the first kids to arrive at the orphanage when it first opened in the early ‘90s. “But, this place is like a real home.”
Eoylte arrived at the home twenty years ago. At that time, nearly 40 children were being housed there. Today, Eoylte is married and has three children of her own.
She watched alongside Sister Jana, the nun who helped raise her, as 1st Inf. Div. Soldiers stepped over toys and around young children as they scrambled around the room sharing their toys with one another.
“I can’t imagine the emotional burden that some of these kids are bearing,” Stene said. “It’s clear that the people caring for them do love them, so I’m not saying they’re without love but I can imagine each and every one of those kids’ stories. I have no idea where they really came from or how they became orphaned.”
For Sister Jana, the joy of seeing these children return many years later with flowers in hand after they’ve left the orphanage and become successful is the greatest gift of all.
"I’m sure all of their stories are moving,” Stene said. “I think that in and of itself is a great reminder for all the people we interact with, like wait a minute, that guy I just walked by I don’t know his story, but he and I might have a whole lot in common.”
Though the words at times became lost in translation as they flowed between the Soldiers, the children and the interpreter who was present, surely it seems, the home grew for a short while. Those who arrived bearing a handful of gifts left understanding a more common language and the parallels existing between people.