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Statesboro woman is making a difference

Lori Bennett's passion helps soldiers, people in Afghanistan

Statesboro woman is making a difference

Statesboro woman is making a difference

Lori Bennett holds a pair of toddler ...


      A chance encounter outside a Veterans Administration hospital changed Lori Bennett’s life forever and perhaps even a few in Afghanistan.
      A little more than a year ago, Bennett traveled to Augusta for an appointment at the Medical College of Georgia. The Statesboro resident was suffering from a debilitating injury to a disk in her neck that caused severe pain and weakness in her legs.
      Her physician told her there was treatment for her pain, but her leg weakness would be permanent.
      “I was angry and feeling mighty sorry for myself when I received a wake up call right in front of my eyes,” Bennett said.
      Adjacent to the Medical College is a Spinal Cord Injury Center that’s part of the Veterans Administration Medical Center. Bennett said she saw a man about 24 years old lying face down on a gurney. He was covered in bandages and appeared paralyzed from the waist down.
      “He had wheeled himself outside to have a cigarette with an orderly running behind him telling him to stop,” Bennett said. “Apparently he had done this several times. He was suffering far more than what I was going through. I saw his determination and drive just to have a cigarette. That humbled me.”
      Bennett never found out the man’s name, but she learned he was wounded while serving in Afghanistan.
       “It hit me that I had to say thank you in some way to our soldiers,” Bennett said. “I had to do something.”
      What Bennett did was found the Davy Weaver Memorial Project that has shipped thousands of pounds of clothes and other items to soldiers in Afghanistan since November 2008. Almost all the clothing is then distributed by the soldiers to the Afghan people, mostly children.
      At first, Bennett just started writing thank you letters to soldiers and urged other people to do the same. But while corresponding with a friend, Chris, who was serving in Afghanistan, he asked if she could send some kids clothing that troops would give out.
      “I was talking to Chris after I sent the package of clothes,” Bennett said. “He told me a couple of the children who had received clothes came up to his patrol and told them where the Taliban had buried an improvised explosive device (IED).
      “That was another epiphany for me,” she said. “Was it really that easy to help change perceptions about our soldiers to the Afghans, particularly the children, by helping a little bit? In the past year, it has been proven to me that it truly does help.”
      After starting to send the packages, Chris suggested to Bennett to name the project for a “fallen brother” of his, Davy Weaver.
      Weaver was a Georgia National Guard soldier who lived in Hinesville. He was killed May 18, 2008, after his Humvee was hit by an IED in Afghanistan. The 1987 graduate of Lamar County High School in Barnesville had previously done tours in Bosnia and Iraq. He had spent an extra three months in Afghanistan because he knew there were personnel shortages there. The extra time proved fatal.
      Bennett contacted Weaver’s mother and family and they agreed to lend his name to the project.
      Bennett began sending boxes last November and she tries to send out 10-12 boxes at least once per month. She estimated she personally has sent about 3,000 pounds of clothes in the past year. Bennett said she gets clothes from garage sales, thrift stores, the Salvation Army and lots of donations from individuals.
      The project does not solicit nor does it accept monetary donations, Bennett said. The one exception she makes is shipping costs. Because the boxes are so heavy and are sent across the world, shipping can cost more than $100. Since Bennett is disabled, she lives on a fixed income. While she pays for most of the shipping herself, several local residents have stepped in to help.
      Debbie Akins heard Bennett speak about the project at a meeting of American Legion Post #90 in Statesboro. Akins said she joined the Legion after her father, Korean War veteran Harry Kogell, died in September.
      “With my father, I’ve always had great respect for military men and women,” Akins said. “I was looking for a way to help and Lori’s project was perfect.”
      Akins and her husband, Richie, have helped Bennett gather clothes and have helped pay some of the shipping costs.
Akins believes the effort to give aid directly to the Afghan children will help the war effort and perhaps foster future goodwill toward the United States.
      “My father told me when he was in Korea, many North Koreans were afraid of them because they were taught we were bad,” Akins said. “When Afghan children and adults are telling our soldiers where IEDs are buried, that makes a difference. Perhaps we can influence a few children as they grow up not to hate Americans.”
      Denise Connolly lives in upstate New York and she began supporting the project when she heard about it from her son in Afghanistan.
      “I am proud to be involved with this project,” she said. “Our only child, Army Lt. Christopher Connolly, is a public affairs officer deployed to Afghanistan. He has been told by other troops how helpful the boxes full of needed items have been, and Chris has seen the goodwill created from helping the children of Afghanistan. The project must have continued support and that will happen by spreading the word about what we are doing.”
      In fact, when she’s not gathering and shipping boxes, Bennett spends most of her time spreading the word about the project.
      “If I have a conversation with just about anyone, I’ll share with them what we’re trying to do,” she said. “Everyone has a blanket or a toy or a pair of shoes they can donate. Just open your closet, you’ll find something there to give.”
      Bennett said she is happy to travel anywhere to pick up donations, but she also said people can send packages themselves. Addresses to bases in Afghanistan are listed on the davyweavermemorialproject.org Web site.
      “It really is that easy to make a difference,” Bennett said.
      Bennett was at her apartment in Statesboro Thursday finishing up packing her latest shipment of 12 boxes. She paused for a moment as she put some shoes in a box.
      “One pair of shoes can make a huge difference in how a child looks at our soldiers,” she said. “That may be hard for us to understand, but the impact of simple gifts and gestures is huge in Afghanistan. It shows we’re the ones giving and the Taliban are the ones taking. I believe these shoes will help save a life.”

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