Overwhelmed by generosity extras

Dec 16, 2012

Meet the team

In September 2008, the Norden District sent two teams of volunteers to Albania to deliver care packages to some of Europe’s neediest families. I joined the first team during the week of September 22. Unfortunately, I could not stay to meet the nine volunteers who arrived the following week. But allow me to introduce you to my traveling companions and guides:

Oddvar Danbolt

Oddvar Danbolt
Horten Kiwanis Club
Retired owner of a personal protection wear shop

Oddvar is the soft-spoken leader—“president”—of  the Norwegians’ Albanian Aid project. His humorous wit engages us to follow his lead—even in tense situations.

Sidsel Laurendz

Sidsel Laurendz
Vestby Kiwanis Club
Retired nurse


Nursing may no longer be Sidsel’s profession, but her compassionate servant heart still qualifies her as a nurse. She absorbed the suffering we saw among the children. She often could be seen with a child in her lap, smiling—though one speaks Norwegian and the other, Albanian.

Bernt Berntsen

Bernt Berntsen
Vestby Kiwanis Club
Retired police detective


At six-feet, two-inches, Bernt Berntsen must have been an imposing policeman. But the former criminal investigator has an easygoing personality. Walking by a florist’s window display, he broke into Wayne Newton’s Red Roses for a Blue Lady. Later in the week in the mountain village of Domen, while most adults huddled beneath shade trees, he joined a group of schoolchildren to practice volleyball passes.

Kjell Johansen

Kjell Johansen
Vestby Kiwanis Club
Telephone company engineer


Upon arriving in Shkodër, the visitors’ first order of business was to exchange Euros for Albanian leks. Kjell knew just the place. Just a block from the Hotel Rozafa, down past the mosque and inside one of the shops was a money-changer he had come to trust for the fairest rates. (When the Kiwanians first discovered him, the man was trading currencies from the trunk of a car.) As treasurer of the Albanian project, Kjell keeps tabs on the group’s expenses. At the end of the week, he passes out itemized lists of each Kiwanian’s share of the costs.

“We could stay at the new, modern hotels for 60 or 70 Euros per night,” Kjell says. “But it just wouldn’t be right to be spending that much money when we’re trying to help people who have nothing.” Instead, the Kiwanians have a standing deal of 10 Euros per night with the Hotel Rozafa, a price that includes breakfast.

Asbjørg Stene

Asbjørg Stene
Kiwanis Club of Fredrikstad-Glommen
Retired retail shop employee


While visiting a preschool, Asbjørg sat with a child, whose dirty blond hair rose in all directions above her grimy face. Asbjørg gently rubbed the child’s cheek with the back of her fingers—a sweet, gentle act of compassion.

Svein Johansen

Svein Johansen
Husband of Sarpsborg Kiwanis Club member Sissel Johansen
Forklift operator


Svein was introduced as “a big man with a big heart.” He is. He readily volunteered whenever the Norwegian Kiwanians needed muscle. A box moved here. A truck driven up the mountains. A refrigerator moved there. But there’s more to
Svein than brawn.

Kastriot Faci

Kastriot Faci
Kiwanis Club of Shkodër, Albania
CEO, The Door Albania


When the Norwegian Kiwanians need transportation, a warehouse, laborers or anything, they ask Kastriot. He’s their local connection.

Faci’s office is a mirror on his many interests. Behind his desk is a portrait of an elderly face, illuminated before a diagonally shadowed wall. On another wall, posters promote a film festival. In addition to his professions as an attorney, CEO of The Door Albania and charter president of the Shkodër Kiwanis Club, Kastriot is an amateur photographer and documentary filmmaker. A busy man.

Arrival time

The trucks have arrived. Last night, the drivers’ text message reported that Montenegro custom agents had labeled one of the trailers as “suspicious cargo,” but they made it across the border. And here they are, 2,800 kilometers from Oslo, Norway, rumbling triumphantly into a modern storage facility on the outskirts of Shkodër. This will be the staging facility. From here, Norwegian Kiwanians will dispense thousands of boxed care packages to some of Europe’s neediest families.

As one of the trucks maneuvers into position alongside a row of metal cubicles, an army of scooters putters through the gates. Three riders quickly dismount, scramble into the trailer and set to work unpacking its contents. The rest of the men carry, wheel and muscle more than 900 boxes, eight bicycles, a refrigerator, two skids of waffle mix, a door frame, a trombone and so much more into four storage units.

“They’re Gypsies,” explains Øivind Strømnes, a Sarpsborg, Norway Kiwanian and vice president of the Albanian Aid project. “We hire them to do our heavy lifting. They have difficulty finding jobs, but we’ve found them to be hard workers and reliable.”

Reliability is important.

“Albania is still coming out of its past as a communist country,” says project president and Horten Kiwanian Oddvar Danbolt. “There still is corruption, and sometimes it can be a challenge getting our stuff through customs. But the people and companies that donate to our project need assurance that their donations are going to people in need. That’s why we need someone—somebody in Albania—we can trust.”

That someone is Kastriot Faci.

Faci is CEO of The Door Albania, which is the local arm of a Norway-based charitable agency called Albanian Norwegian Aid. He and his staff steer the project away from or through the corruption. They work with commune governments and schools on the logistics of deliveries. They find secure warehouse space and workers. And they identify families in crises. Such as a mother who was selling cigarettes on the streets because her husband was in jail and her children were starving. Or the mother of twins who needed a two-seat pram. Or the school that needs bookshelves.

The Norwegian Kiwanians take it from there.


The beginning

A pirate ship sails across the floor of the The Door’s Social Center kindergarten in Shkodër, Albania. Its young captain fends off envious classmates who’d like some playing time with the toy boat.

Ironically, the toy’s adventure can be traced back to a real ship, hijacked more than 15 years ago in the Adriatic Sea.

By 1992, most eastern European nations already had traded communism for democracy. One holdout was Albania. Amid the tension of that time, a group of Albanians captured a ship in the Adriatic Sea and set a course for freedom and jobs in western Europe. Authorities intercepted the ship and sent the hijackers back to Albania.

TV news reports about the ship’s flight inflamed a curiosity among a group of Norwegian Kiwanians.

“Albania was absolutely closed during the communist period,” remembers Øivind Strømnes, a Sarpsborg, Norway, Kiwanian and vice president of the Albanian Aid project. “It was absolutely closed; no one could go in unless you were a member of the left wing communist party. Even then, you had to follow the official government tourist route.

“So when we watched the news about this Albanian ship, we were curious about conditions there.”

After Albania opened its borders, the Kiwanians sent a representative—a nurse—to visit the long-isolated country and determine how Kiwanis clubs could help.

“She brought back pictures, horrifying pictures, about the conditions in homes for disabled, maternity hospitals and psychiatric wards,” Strømnes says.

In cooperation with other aid organizations, the Kiwanians initially decided to help institutions like the poorly equipped facilities they saw in the nurse’s photos. They sent beds and medical equipment to hospitals and blackboards and desks to schools. Such large items, however, proved expensive to transport. Plus, European governments began helping the schools, medical facilities and other institutions.

Little, however, was being done to help families, especially those living in remote mountain villages.

“We decided to focus our efforts on sending boxes of clothing, shoes, toys and household items to families in true need,” Strømnes says. “These boxes have proved very popular. It’s not unusual for us to visit a village and we’ll get a hug from someone who says, ‘You gave my family one of your boxes two years ago. Thank you.’ Or we’ll be walking down a street and see a man wearing a T-shirt we recognize from a shipment we delivered five years ago.”

Norden District Kiwanians still support institutions—just on a smaller, more transportable scale. Recently, for example, they were given access behind the locked doors of a psychiatric facility to distribute candy and other supplies.

And they hauled an extra large box of toys into the Social Center kindergarten classroom, where the contents quickly were spilled across the floor. Arms cuddled dolls. A plush bear was swaddled in blankets and nestled in a plastic crib.A musical cell phone sent pretend messages across the room. A teacher used a pull-along turtle to help one child learn colors. And one pirate ship embarked on a carpet-faring adventure.

A new life

Sidsel Laurendz was starting over. After living nearly 20 years in Ørland, Trøndelag, Norway, her husband died in 2004 and she moved back to her hometown of Son, Vestby, Norway, eager to find new friends. She found a family instead—2,300 kilometers away in the Balkans.

“I was alone and in a new city,” Sidsel says, beginning her Kiwanis story. “I was given a flier about Kiwanis and decided to give it a try. I’m now a member of the Vestby club. I’ve met other single women and lots of new friends.”

It wasn’t too long before her new friends invited her to The Barn.

Year-round, The Barn is the hub of activity where Kiwanians throughout the Norden District store and box up the countless contributions they receive from individuals and businesses across Norway. Kiwanians meet there every week to sort the donations and pack much of it into 60-by-50-by-40-centimeter cardboard boxes. As a volunteer at The Barn, Laurendz was intrigued by the stories of Kiwanians who traveled to Albania to deliver the boxes.

In 2006, she decided to go too. That’s when she met a fragile mother selling cigarettes on the street. “Her husband was in prison, and she was trying to feed and clothe four children,” Laurendz remembers. “I wanted so much to help her, but we had other things to do.”

The next day, her group’s itinerary included a visit to a family in desperate need.

The tiny apartment was uninhabitable. No water. The toilet was a hole in the floor. The children had no shoes. No beds. No books. They could not afford school.

Surprisingly, the single mother struggling to keep her family together turned out to be the cigarette saleslady. Her name was Mimoza.

Laurendz adopted the family as her personal cause. At home in Norway, she led efforts to raise money and collect bicycles, clothing and other gifts, which she delivered to the family upon her next trip to Albania.

This past September, Laurendz returned to Shkodër eager to see her family again. The news, however, was disturbing. The mother was in a mental-health institution, and the father, released from jail, had moved the children to Kosovo.

Determined to see the family, Laurendz and Shkodër Kiwanian Kastriot Faci left early on a Saturday morning for the eight-hour drive to Kosovo City, where she found the family amid squalor again. The bicycles and school books were gone.

The father welcomed the visitors, and the children once again went shopping with their adopted Norwegian mother. New shoes, socks, shirts, pants and books filled their arms, and they moved toward racks of backpacks. Laurendz noticed the oldest boy’s dismay.

The 14-year-old stared at the packs, decorated with cute fuzzy cartoon animals and bright colors. He stole a glance at the more expensive, more mature models.

She understood. It’s tough accepting someone’s charity and he felt compelled to choose from the cheaper, childish packs.

“You get the one you want,” she insisted.

"You could see the relief come instantly into his eyes,” she later reported.

Before leaving Kosovo City, Laurendz held the father’s hand and looked him in the eye. “Take care of the children,” she begged. “I will. I will,” he promised.”

On the treacherous drive back to Skhodër, Faci received a threatening text message from the father: “You have made an enemy.”

“They’re in Kosovo now,” Laurendz regrets. “Our Kiwanis project is in Albania, and there are so many other people who need help there. I’ll have to see if there’s something I can do personally to continue to help this family.”

Editor’s note: Laurendz reported this past February that the father has been arrested and put in prison for an unrelated crime. The mother once again has custody of the children and has brought them home to Shkodër.

A daughter in peril

Every time Oddvar Danbolt returns home from a trip to Albania, he’s ready to debate anyone who complains about life.

“You simply can’t appreciate how easy you have it until you’ve seen true hardship like we see in the mountains of Albania,” says Danbolt, a Horten, Norway, Kiwanian and president of the Norden District’s Albanian project.

One family’s struggles-to-prosperity-to-desperation story keeps a persistent hold on his memory.

Kiwanians met the Gjoka family in 2003. The parents and two daughters were living in a shack, while the two sons were working illegally in Greece. To help the family get on its feet, the Kiwanians acquired a pregnant cow. 

On a subsequent visit, the Norwegians discovered that the children were healthy, and the calf had been born and sold to buy a pig, chickens and new teeth for the mother. The children were attending school. With the help of SOS Children’s Village of Fredrikstad, Norway, the Kiwanians raised money to build the Gjokas a new house.

“Today, they no longer need our help,” Danbolt reports. “But we visit them whenever we’re in Shkodër.”

But the family’s ascent from poverty’s grip is always in peril.

“Both girls are lovely,” Danbolt says of the 12- and 14-year-old daughters. “And that can be dangerous in Shkodër.”

Fearing their daughters could be abducted into slavery and prostitution, the father quit his job so he can ride the bus with them to school. There he waits until school lets out and they ride home.

“The family and social agency have talked about arranging the elder daughter’s marriage,” Danbolt says. “In this culture, even the black market respects marriage vows. But for now, SOS Children’s Village continues to send money so the girls can attend high school.”

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