U.S. military charity reaches out to Afghans in need

(CBS News) At this time of year, there are always plenty of special deliveries to U.S. forces around Afghanistan. But at this coalition air base in the capital Kabul, troops are busy sorting through parcels which are not for them. This is part of the work of Operation Outreach, a military charity. The supplies are donations from Americans for Afghans in need. The Outreach team packs up winter clothing, school supplies, and hygiene items to be handed out to impoverished local people.

"We solicit donations from back home. People send stuff in the mail," says Captain Treone Cooley, President of Operation Outreach. "We make missions ourselves out into the community and we also co-ordinate with people locally that are going out and send stuff out with them. We focus mainly on women and children, but the goal is those that are in need and those who are impacted by the war effort."

Although the project operates all year round, this is a crucial time of year to help the poorest, with temperatures dropping below freezing at night. The Outreach troops make the most of the season of goodwill and ask fellow soldiers to chip in at Christmas market on the base. Within an hour their donation box is full.

Treone and her team load up with goody bags and head out to visit a local day care center. There is a rush of excitement as they arrive with gifts of soft toys and schoolbooks for the children. Their mothers work for a low wage and struggle to afford anything more than essential items. The day care center has few resources, so this is a rare and special treat for the kids.

"I got a pen and a schoolbook,' says nine-year old Medina, who immediately sets about drawing pictures. 'I'm really happy.'

Another Outreach volunteer, Shakia Rose, sits on the floor, surrounded by small children clutching their new toys. She smiles and jokes with the children, who are clearly enjoying making a new friend.

This is also an important opportunity for Americans to play a positive role in the local community -- at a time when trust between Afghans and Americans is being tested following a series of so-called 'insider attacks', in which Afghan troops turn on their international colleagues, this is a positive step.

"If we're out there and we're talking to the people and we're helping them and making even a minor difference in their lives, they're going to remember that," says Shakia. "They're going to remember that they stayed warm, because it was somebody from ISAF that gave them a blanket. They're going to remember that my child didn't die because we were able to provide them medical supplies. So I think it's making a tremendous difference and I think they really know that we're here to help."

The Operation Outreach team has also come up with an economical and innovative solution for local people who cannot afford winter fuel. They use recycled paper from the base to make special "fuel pucks," which can provide heat for up to an hour. Shredded paper is mixed with sawdust and water, compressed by hand in a homemade press and laid out to dry. The troops produce the pucks after they finish normal duty on the base - which means operating in dark, freezing tent with no electricity.

"It can get a little cold in the winter time, but I feel it's good just to help the nation of Afghanistan out, the families," says Technical Sargent Robert Hudson, who is in charge of the fuel puck production.  "All of us volunteer our time. This is not our normal duty. We take time out of our personal time."

Once dried, the fuel pucks are donated to the very poorest of the poor. On Christmas morning a group of volunteers take them out to a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul. The conditions are shocking. Families live in dilapidated buildings, or in ramshackle shelters surrounded by a sea of mud. They have no electricity, or running water - - and critically, no source of heat, or cooking fuel. Last winter, 17 children froze to death in camps like these. Seemingly unaware of the risks her lifestyle holds, a small girl in bright pink coat and shiny blue scarf smiles and happily chats to the visitors, hopeful that they will brighten her day.

One of the families at the camp makes a small fire from the fuel pucks and puts a kettle on to boil for tea. A small comfort perhaps, amongst their miserable surroundings. But as we leave a woman shouts out for more help. The volunteers vow to return with more supplies. 

Whatever they do here, it will never be quite enough to bring these people out of dire poverty.