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Ministry trades toys for toy guns in Iraq

A young Iraqi boy happily shows off a soccer ball sent by the Turin and Onawa United Methodist churches in Iowa. A UMNS photo by Staff Sgt. Tylor Belshe.

A UMNS Report
By Lilla Marigza*
March 14, 2007

U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Tylor Bleshe gives a backpack to an Iraqi youngster. A UMNS photo courtesy of Staff Sgt. Tylor Belshe.

Two small churches in rural Iowa have found a way to outsmart insurgents in Iraq, using boxes filled with soccer balls and stuffed animals to spread goodwill and save the lives of children in Fallujah.

The ministry began last year after Janet Wakehouse, a member of Turin (Iowa) United Methodist Church, heard about a sickening war tactic through her Marine son-in-law serving in Iraq. She learned how insurgents gave children realistic-looking toy guns in hopes that a U.S. soldier might mistakenly shoot a child and incite anger against the United States.

Wakehouse also read about a soldier who had traded a soccer ball for a fake assault rifle that one Iraqi boy was carrying.

Out of the two accounts, a hometown effort grew to collect safe toys to swap for the dangerous ones. Members of the Turin church and the United Methodist Church in neighboring Onawa began gathering soccer balls, backpacks, Beanie Babies and other toys for the cause.

Janet Wakehouse shows some of the donated toys being sent to children in Iraq. A UMNS photo by Tim Griffis.

Word spread, and one man donated 1,500 soccer balls, asking that 500 go to Baghdad, 500 to Afghanistan and 500 to Fallujah.

In the end, 28 boxes were shipped before Christmas so the toys could be distributed by Wakehouse’ son-in-law, Staff Sgt. Tylor Belshe, and his fellow Marines.

“People are so generous,” she says. “In spite of all the bad in the world, there are wonderful people out there.”

The cases of deflated soccer balls brought additional benefits, giving Iraqi children a positive activity to occupy their days. “They’re not setting off roadside bombs; they are blowing up soccer balls,” Wakehouse says.

The toys are a welcome treat for children who live in a war zone and face hardships and danger on a daily basis. For the girls, favorites include Barbie dolls, crayons and construction paper. “We did it to make the children happy, to help them forget some of the terrible things that have happened to them in their lives,” Wakehouse adds.

The ministry has been a blessing for the two Iowa churches as well, according to the Rev. Arley Ellingson, who pastors both congregations.

A U. S. Marine distributes school supplies to Iraqi children. A UMNS photo by Staff Sgt. Tylor Belshe.

“I think we are called in our role as Christians to respond to the word of Jesus Christ and to his children in any way that we can,” says Ellingson. “We as a Christian people will accomplish much more if we open our eyes, see how the world is talking to us and respond as the spirit moves us, to that ministry, wherever it may be.”

For Wakehouse, the calling became evident, even as she was more than 6,000 miles away from the Iraqi war. “Something within you … God says … ‘You need to do something about this,’” she explains.

For her 28-year-old son-in law, the toy delivery from Iowa was a care package that he and his fellow Marines cherish, knowing that they are making a lasting impression on the children of Iraq. “He was happy, he was very happy,” says Wakehouse. “It was a Christmas he will not forget.”

*Marigza is a freelance producer in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Fran Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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