UW-Eau Claire alumni success stories

Soldier starts charity to help Iraqi children

The article below features Ryan Casper, a 1994 UW-Eau Claire social studies education graduate who is serving in Iraq with the Army's 477th Medical Company out of Duluth, Minn. Casper has started a charity, the 477th Hearts and Minds Club, that gives school supplies to Iraqi children. The article appeared in the June 10, 2004, issue of the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram and is reprinted with permission.

1st Lt. Ryan Casper in Iraq

Ryan Casper '941st Lt. Ryan Casper, deployed to Iraq in December 2003, teaches at Ellsworth High School. (Submitted photos)

See photos from the first Hearts and Minds Club drop of supplies to an Iraqi school.

Read an e-mail Casper sent to friends and supporters following the first school supply drop.

Read a December 2004 Eau Claire Leader-Telegram article about Casper and his efforts.

By Troy Espe

1st Lt. Ryan Casper found something more disturbing than the conditions of Iraqi schools. He discovered a hatred of Americans being taught within those crumbling walls.

To battle that perception, Casper, an Army reservist from Ellsworth, has started a charity that gives school supplies to Iraqi children. It’s called the 477th Hearts and Minds Club (visit the charity's Web site).

“With all the negative press, I felt that getting into the schools would be the best opportunity for (Iraqi children) to see that not all Americans want to tear up their homeland,” Casper, 39, wrote in an e-mail from Iraq. “Kindness will go a long way here and what better target audience than children and young adults?”

Casper was mobilized in December 2003 with the 477th Medical Company out of Duluth, Minn. Casper is executive officer of a ground ambulance company that transports patients and medical supplies from Baghdad to southern Iraq.

Before deployment, Casper taught history at Ellsworth High School. He wanted to connect his world affairs students with Iraqi classrooms. He visited Iraqi schools and saw the shabby surroundings.

“My initial hope of linking up with Iraqi schools was not going to happen,” he wrote. “Many of these schools have bombed-out buildings and not nearly enough supplies for their students.”

Casper brainstormed ways to help. He contacted Operation Iraqi Children founded by “Forrest Gump” actor Gary Sinise. Sinise got in touch with Casper and gave him tips.

Casper’s idea was to persuade Americans to donate school supplies, which his unit then would deliver during ambulance runs.

“A visit from American troops bringing supplies, toys and a friendly demeanor will have a greater effect on these kids than all of the propaganda in the world,” Casper wrote.

Idea takes off

Casper enlisted friends and family to help with the 477th Hearts and Minds Club. Volunteers around the United States have solicited donations.

“Here’s somebody going to a very stressful environment and he’s not thinking of himself,” said Liz Krueger, of Maplewood, Minn., who attended UW-Eau Claire with Casper. “He’s just trying to make a difference.”

Casper’s parents, Ruth and Roger Casper of rural Eau Claire, have mailed supplies. His nephew created a Web site. His brother Rick and sister-in-law Char have gotten contributions from Luther Hospital. A former student held a supply drive at a University of Minnesota sorority house. Ellsworth High School students collected more than 1,000 items.

“It’s starting to get more recognition,” his brother Ross Casper of Knoxville, Tenn., said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to get people involved for the long term.”

Response has been positive, volunteers said. The club already has received enough supplies for several classrooms.

“It’s a grassroots effort,” Krueger said. “Ryan’s requested friends and families to donate. People that we don’t even know have been finding the Web site.”

Casper’s commanding officers supported the club. Soldiers have volunteered to organize supplies.

“He wanted to assure everybody that this effort wouldn’t detract from their mission and it wouldn’t jeopardize anybody’s safety,” said Ross Casper, a retired Marine.

Passion for children

Casper was born and raised in Eau Claire. He graduated in 1983 from Memorial High School and earned a degree in 1994 from UW-Eau Claire. He has a daughter, Alisha, in Cleveland.

Casper has worked at Ellsworth High School since 1997 teaching geography, U.S. history, world history and world affairs. He coaches varsity softball and junior varsity football, and runs the chess club.

“His passion for teaching here in the United States, he took it with him over there,” Ross Casper, 42, said.

Casper has been in the military for 20 years.

“In the big picture, your gifts can help save American and coalition lives in the future,” Casper wrote. “A goodwill gesture can go a long way in this country and hopefully we can supply that gesture.”

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