Ravens coach John Harbaugh took a half-hour out of his overseas trip visiting U.S. troops to Skype on Thursday with a group from St. Paul's School for Girls, who had collected coffee and tea to send to the air base in Afghanistan Harbaugh was visiting.
"This generation of youth can easily forget that we have troops serving to protect our freedom and the freedom of others ... so the opportunity to create service learning opportunities where it's a three-dimensional act of giving respect to those who are protecting our lives and the lives of others, is a very tangible way of living our school's mission" of educating girls in both mind and spirit, Penny Evins, the head of school at St. Paul's School for Girls, said.
During the Skype session, 50 sixth-graders and a dozen representatives from the school's service group Club USA chatted with soldiers, officers and Harbaugh. Harbaugh, who on Saturday was awarded the NFL's Salute to Service Award for his commitment to the military, is spending the week visiting troops in Turkey and Afghanistan.
Harbaugh first visited the troops in 2009, and his return visit served as an opportunity to reconnect with friends from that trip and make new ones, he told the girls.
On Thursday, Harbaugh was visiting with the 4th Infantry Division at Kandahar — a unit sponsored by his daughter Alison's sixth-grade class at SPSG.
Harbaugh opened the Skype session by picking his Alison out of the crowd and saying hello. All the sixth-graders then performed a song, "I'll Fly Away," for the coach and the troops.
A 20-minute question-and-answer session followed with the girls asking questions of those overseas. One asked about the weather which Harbaugh said wasn't as advertised.
"I was told that it would be warm here, but it's not," he said. "It's been snowing, it's been cold, it's been raining every day."
Most questions, however, were directed to the servicemen and servicewomen.
The girls asked about how they communicated with their families, what they missed most about home and also what life was like for girls their age in Afghanistan.
But the question that created the most buzz was when a student asked what the soldiers most liked to get from the home front. The answer — flavored coffee — was one the girls were excited to hear.
For the last month, Club USA has been holding a donation drive to ask for coffee, tea and hot chocolate to send to the troops as both the sixth-grade class and Club USA have adopted an Army unit.
"We sponsor our own unit and we try and write letters to them and send them shipments of care packages, which can prove difficult because shipping is expensive," Kate Brocato, 16, president of Club USA, said. "It's hard sometimes, but that's basically our goal — to give them any support that would help their mindsets out there."
Brocato, of Towson, said Club USA at the Upper School has been supporting the armed forces for eight years, and is currently sponsoring the Ramrod Battalion of the 2nd Infantry Division. Adviser LuAnn Blackman said the club initially sent cookies to Iraq before taking up the coffee and tea drives in recent years. Their goal is to provide a concrete connection to the troops, Brocato said.
Tania Ghandour, 12, of Pikesville, said the Middle School students have also long-sponsored a military unit.
"We've been writing letters," Tania, a sixth-grader, said. "I like it because I think it helps them feel like they're at home. It gives me a good feeling."
The girls haven't counted up how much they collected during this year's drive, but they said that last year, a total of between 12 and 15 crates went overseas. This year's donations will be split between each of the units sponsored by both the sixth-graders and Club USA.
"We just hope that it gives them a sense of home, and it reminds them that we're thinking of them," Brocato said. "It's something physical that they're receiving from us.
"You sign your name and they see that name and they know these specific people really care. That brings in a more personal element."