Volunteers help Afghans to stay warm Published Feb. 20, 2014 By Senior Master Sgt. Gary J. Rihn 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (AFNS) -- Thanks to a group of service members at Camp Phoenix here, local Afghan families now have a clean convenient source of heat. Twice a week, a group of U.S. and coalition partner service members gather for a couple of hours to make what they refer to as fire donuts and fire bricks, to be distributed to the local community. The joint teamscombine paper from cross-cut shredders, sawdust and water to form a pulp, put it into pieces of PVC pipe or wooden forms, press excess water out, to allow the bricks to thoroughly dry in the sun before loading them up for distribution. The Afghan families who receive the fire starters then use them as a source of reliable heat during the cold winter months. "This is a great opportunity to help the Afghans," said Captain James Haslup. "We take it for granted that you turn up the thermostat and the furnace warms your house. That's not the case here. "Besides, it's another way to show the Afghans that we're here to help with more than just security." The program is a part of Operation Outreach Afghanistan, or OOA, a group of individuals who volunteer their time and resources to help the children of Afghanistan. They do this by providing food, clothing, school supplies and basic medical items to hospitals, villages, orphanages and schools in need. Volunteers are the heart and soul of the outreach program and service members enable the group to request gift support from families, coworkers, civic groups, religious organizations and businesses back home. The mission of OOA empowers Afghans through compassionate humanitarian assistance. "I grew up less fortunate than some others, and now give back to those less fortunate than me," said Senior Master Sgt. Nicola Natale. "Since I can't go outside the wire myself, this is the closest I'll ever get to directly helping the Afghans." Close to 900 service members have volunteered since the fire donut program began in 2009, with over 400 still actively participating at different times. "I see the benefit here," said Staff Sgt. Lentrell Hill. "Their life, the way they live, is totally different than America. The time that I spend volunteering to help them is rewarding to me." Besides helping the local community, the joint volunteer environment also gives the U.S. service members an opportunity to work closely with their brothers and sisters from the coalition services and in turn builds camaraderie, networking and sometimes friendships spanning well beyond the volunteer environment. "I want to help the Afghan population," said Staff Sgt. Razvan Olteanu of the Romanian Army. "They deserve that. "It's a great experience for us to work with the community here." In addition to the ongoing fire starter project, volunteers have put together school supply kits for the children as well as bags of winter clothes and household goods, have raised money through a 5K run in December and invited children from a local orphanage on to the base where they were able to each receive a large bag of toys and clothing items. The children visited Camp Phoenix for a couple of hours, where they were able to play catch and other games with OOA volunteers, take pictures and share snacks with the service members.