Beyond the Uniform: A Tale of Gratitude and Growth

NOV 10 2023

By Danielle Bennet

Danielle Bennett, Canopy’s Youth Services Supervisor Reflects on Her Time in Afghanistan

It has been my absolute privilege and passion to be able to work with children of all ages for the past 13 years. Prior to working at Canopy I was a public school teacher in Mountain Home, Arkansas, where I taught 5th grade Literacy. I am also a U.S. Army veteran, and was deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2010.Danielle Bennet

I originally found Canopy through a google search while looking for ways to support refugees being resettled in the United States. I started as a volunteer in 2017 and would make the 5 hour round-trip drive between Mountain Home and Fayetteville with my then 11 year old daughter. We would attend volunteer training, advocacy nights, and table at events on the weekends. We also had the opportunity to travel with Canopy three times to Washington D.C. to meet with our local elected officials to advocate for refugee resettlement in Arkansas.

In the summer of 2018 we moved to Fayetteville and became more involved as volunteers. I served as an after school program mentor, a co-sponsor, and assisted with child care and transportation. Fortunately, Canopy was looking for a Volunteer Coordinator so I eagerly applied and was hired! Here we are 4 ½ years later and I am now the Youth Services Supervisor, a position I have been in since March of 2020. To me this is my ultimate dream job, as I get to combine all of my passions: working in refugee resettlement, supporting students and their families, and supporting our amazing teachers and schools.

What does your job as Youth Services Manager for Canopy entail?

Our Youth team does so much! However, if I had to summarize, I would say that we serve as a bridge between our families and their schools by helping students and parents navigate new norms and expectations in the U.S. school system. We offer programming for our students, which includes an after-school program, our Canopy Kids Summer Camp, and a College and Career Readiness Program. We also connect our students with various resources and opportunities throughout our community.

How did your experiences in the military shape the person you are today?

As a child I was very shy and quiet, but my experiences in the military gave me the confidence I needed to be able to talk with people from all walks of life. It also gave me the courage and integrity to advocate for those whose voices have been silenced.

While talking about my experiences in the military, it would be almost impossible for me to not mention my deployment to Afghanistan since it had such a profound impact on my life, and ultimately led me to the work I am doing now. Since I normally don’t talk a lot about my experiences in the military, people are often surprised when they find out that I am a veteran. I know that some of us have certain images or ideas that come to mind when we hear that someone has been deployed, so I wanted to take this opportunity to paint a different picture.

I was only 23 years old when I arrived in Kandahar. I had not been to college yet or started any kind of career, but was thinking of pursuing a degree in Occupational Therapy so that I could work with wounded veterans. This was the plan I had in mind when I joined the military at 17.

I also arrived in Kandahar feeling gutted for having to be separated from my 3 year old daughter for so long. I would get this gnawing pain in my heart which I had never experienced before, but made the saying, “I miss you so much it hurts”, make sense. It wasn’t until I had a chance encounter with an American female linguist looking for tent poles, that I would truly find my purpose for why I was there. She had been working with a few local children while their parents worked in the district center. She was so kind to invite me to join her one day to see what she was doing and from then on I spent nearly every day with the children. At first, you could say I was also a student, writing everything the kids were writing and learning their alphabet right along with them. The few kids eventually turned into more than 50 and we outgrew the small cloth tent and the Conex. One day I counted approximately 80 students! What we were doing was not part of a project or anything official. We just did this in our free time, which thanks to my Commander’s support, I had a lot of “free time”.

Since the linguist was working for the Brigade Commander there were many days that she could not come so it would just be me walking the kids in and out of the district center and doing the best I could to teach them with the little Pashto I knew. Sometimes I would try to get other interpreters to come so that we could at least read books to the children. I also worked hard to learn their alphabet and numbers so that I could contribute more to the teaching side of things.

Honestly, I am not sure how much the kids actually learned from me or if what we had created would even be considered a school. However, I did notice a slight change in the kids I had met several months earlier. They were arriving with their hair brushed, their faces washed, and had their notebook and pencils in hand. They seemed to be walking a little taller, with a sense of pride. Seeing these children risk their lives for even the smallest opportunity to learn is something that has always stayed with me. It was then that I knew I wanted to become a teacher and spend the rest of my life advocating for children and their right to quality education.

I said goodbye to the original students and gave each of them a heart stone necklace made of Lapis. I also bought one for myself and showed them that we all had the same one. I know some people may find this silly, but they had given me so many gifts and would never let me refuse. This was my gift to them, a little piece of my heart. I’m not sure if they understood what it all meant, since I heard that they were asking where I was weeks after I had left. I try not to think too much about what has become of them, but I often do.

I became incredibly close to many of the children and some of their parents, which was only natural since I had spent nearly everyday with them for almost a year. I had seen what a decade of war had done to not only the children but to their parents and grandparents.

The people from Pasab were kind and generous. Their care for me was genuine which initially shocked me given the circumstances, but quickly discovered Afghan people to be among the most hospitable people you will ever meet in your life, if you are ever so fortunate to do so.

As a veteran, what sort of responsibility do you feel to speak up on issues that relate to refugee resettlement?

I think of why most of us served in the first place, to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and I personally feel like it is my duty to defend and advocate for human rights here at home and abroad.

Some of us come back from deployments feeling like there was more we could have done, and service is part of our DNA as veterans, so I think it is only natural to see many of us out in our communities volunteering and advocating.

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