student veterans standing in a room with boxes of donations
The Student Veterans Association at VCU has been accepting donations to help Afghan refugees being temporarily housed at Fort Lee and Fort Pickett. (Courtesy photo)

‘This is close to home for me’: Student veterans collect donations to aid Afghan refugees in Virginia

Supplies from the ongoing campaign support refugees at Fort Lee and Fort Pickett.

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Veterans Jake Davenport, Shae Gavit and Stephen Ross share a passion for helping the thousands of Afghan refugees being temporarily housed at Fort Lee and Fort Pickett. That’s why Gavit and Davenport, president and treasurer, respectively, of the Student Veterans Association at VCU, started a campaign with Ross to gather donations for the refugees. 

“Many of us have had friends and family members who have served that speak highly of the Afghan people,” said Ross, director of Military Student Services in Strategic Enrollment Management and Student Success at VCU. “We all care.”

The initial idea started during the U.S. military withdrawal of Afghanistan. “A lot of our students were struggling with it,” said Ross, an Air Force veteran. “All of us have a lot of connections to it and to the Afghan people. A lot of students have their own friends that have served there. They loved the people and want to do what they can to help the Afghan families.”

Ross’ son, Drew, died in 2018 while serving in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. 

“Drew and I spoke often about his interactions with Afghan children and the village leadership,” Ross said. “One of his roles was to help the Afghan people. He worked with the village elder through the Afghan interpreters, the people that we are trying to help now. Those interpreters were crucial in the process, and they worked side-by-side with the military. They got to be good friends.” 

Davenport, an Army veteran who is a freshman majoring in mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering, was deployed to Afghanistan in 2018.

“This is close to home for me,” he said. “These people don’t have a lot to begin with. We want to give them a good U.S. welcome and show them what it’s like to be American.” 

When he was deployed, Davenport sometimes had interpreters on site with him during a mission. He often interacted with kids in the village.

“The kids would ask for food and money. I would give them some of my food and water. It was touching to me that they would be so thankful for something as mundane as an empty water bottle so they could gather water from a local well or river,” he said. “In return they brought me two bags of Afghan Cheetos. I still have the [leftover] bags from the Cheetos on my refrigerator now.” 

Gavit, a senior in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, didn’t deploy to Afghanistan but has a deep understanding of the respect members of the U.S. military have for the Afghans that helped them.

“These refugees are in desperate need of supplies,” said Gavit, a veteran of the Marine Corps. “For those who deployed and those who didn’t, 9/11 is etched into their brains. For 20 years these Afghan families risked their lives to ensure our success in Afghanistan. We want to do as much as we can do to make them feel safe and comfortable here. They may never be able to go home again.” 

Donations start rolling in

The SVA at VCU started accepting donations on Sept. 1 at Military Student Services (Harris Hall, third floor office, room 3122, 1015 Floyd Ave.). Donations will be carried to Fort Lee and eventually Fort Pickett. 

“Since then, it’s blown up,” Gavit said of the volume of donations. “We’re getting everything from soccer balls and toys to clothing and shoes of all sizes. There’s a dire need for everything. These people came in with the clothes on their back so we’re trying to get them some items of clothing.”

Fort Lee has issued a list of items that changes often depending on need. 

“We have been taking any funds through our PayPal donation link to pay for items that aren’t so readily available for donating, such as underwear and baby formula,” Gavit said. “We are also working with the ROTC at VCU. We have enlisted their help to take supplies to Fort Lee.” 

In addition, SVA is partnering with Brinks Money. “They will help with donations and marketing this cause for us,” Davenport said.

This isn’t the first time the SVA has worked on a volunteer mission, but it is “one of the biggest they have done,” Ross said. 

“We started by putting the word out through the VCU military family community and to students, faculty and staff that have served or who are using the G.I. bill,” he said. 

The SVA will accept donations at the 9/11 event Military Student Services will hold this Friday at the Ram Horns sculpture at the steps of the Commons Plaza to recognize the people who died during the terrorist attacks.

“I hope we can get exactly what the refugees need as quickly as possible,” Gavit said. “They come from a conservative background and are now experiencing new things. To be successful in America they are going to have to learn new skills, and that is the hardest part. There is already a language barrier and the trauma they have had to deal with.”

Donations will continue as long as they are needed. 

“This is more of a marathon than a sprint,” Gavit said.