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Merced man finds eager pupils while serving in Kosovo

US Army - 1st Lt. Chris Van Meter and Capt. William Baldwin hand out school supplies donated by Ceres High School to children in Mogila, Kosovo. Van Meter (a teacher at Ceres High School in civilian life) and Baldwin are with the California Army National Guard's 1-18th Cavalry Regiment currently deployed to Kosovo as a part of a peace-keeping mission in the Balkans. (U.S. Army Photo by Spc. Darriel Swatts)
US Army - 1st Lt. Chris Van Meter and Capt. William Baldwin hand out school supplies donated by Ceres High School to children in Mogila, Kosovo. Van Meter (a teacher at Ceres High School in civilian life) and Baldwin are with the California Army National Guard's 1-18th Cavalry Regiment currently deployed to Kosovo as a part of a peace-keeping mission in the Balkans. (U.S. Army Photo by Spc. Darriel Swatts)

Army Lt. Chris Van Meter brings the world to his students when he teaches at Ceres High School.

He hangs Iraqi and Bosnian flags as reminders of his overseas deployments and encourages his classes to catch up on current events.

He's still teaching 6,400 miles away on his yearlong National Guard deployment in Kosovo. He makes weekly visits to a four-room schoolhouse in the Balkan country, giving Ceres students a window on a war-torn region forgotten by many Americans.

Those ties have developed into an international partnership between two Ceres High leadership classes and the school Van Meter visits in the ethnically mixed city of Mogila in southern Kosovo.

Ceres High students and staff members have sent 65 boxes of school supplies to the underfunded classes in Mogila. The California teenagers also are trading letters with Serbian- and Albanian-speaking 9- and 10-year-olds from Kosovo.

"I just have to admire Chris for being a teacher wherever he goes," said Ceres High School teacher Linda Cooper, whose leadership students have adopted the Kosovo school.

The partnership developed last month when Van Meter and other National Guard soldiers from the 1st Battalion of the 18th Cavalry Regiment began spending a couple hours a week teaching English at Kosovo schools.

They aimed to give Albanian and Serb students, whose parents likely were enemies in the late 1990s war, a common language to talk through their differences.

The conflict between the two sides left 10,000 Albanians and 1,000 Serbs dead. It displaced hundreds of thousands of Albanians, who were able to return to their homes after NATO attacked Serb positions in a 78-day campaign.

Tensions between the two ethnic groups still threaten to erupt, which is why western soldiers remain in the country to police the peace.

Serbs accordingly are less trustful of Americans and NATO allies, Van Meter said. That's why the classroom visits represented a chance to relax some of the hard memories of the 1999 bombing campaign.

"We see the kids and the parents come in and see what's happening, and they're very thankful," said Van Meter, 35, of Merced.

On a personal level, Van Meter was thrilled to get back in a classroom.

"There's something you miss when you step out of the classroom and you're not able to get the feedback from the kids," he said. "It's some kind of personal feeling you get, a satisfaction working with the kids."

He started taking pictures of the Kosovar students immediately and sending them home to Ceres. He also asked the high school to deliver some supplies, which could be used to help more Kosovar students get an education.

Supplies fly in

"It snowballed," Cooper said. "It was amazing the kind of stuff we collected."

Packages from her students were stuffed with notebooks, pens, pencils, glue, crayons, book bags and simplified lessons that fit English language learners, all of it in boxes that cost $14.95 to ship.

Cooper said the high school kids were especially moved by photos Van Meter sent showing students who couldn't attend class because they didn't have materials to study.

"You see all these little faces outside looking in and that just breaks your heart," she said.

The Mogila school is a rarity in that Albanian and Serbian students both attend class there. About 35 Serbs take classes in the morning until 11 a.m., and 100 Albanians go to school after noon.

Students polite

Van Meter and Capt. William Baldwin arrive between the two sessions, teaching a mixed group of eight Albanian and eight Serb students.

"The children, they're different from American kids," said Baldwin, who is based at Fort Lewis, Wash. "These children are very attentive, and they're eager to learn."

Van Meter previously served in Bosnia in 2003 and 2004, where he met his wife, Elizabeth. They deployed to Iraq in late 2004 with the 250th Military Intelligence Battalion and moved to Merced after their tour ended. They have a 1-year-old son, Gavin.

Van Meter should be home by winter break in Ceres, but he likely will move to Central Valley High School for the spring semester. He's ready to bring back another foreign flag for his classroom.

Teaching English to Kosovars has "been fantastic," Van Meter said. "It's one of those highlights I'll always remember from here.

"Add to that the success story of the Ceres High School students and the staff coming together."

Bee assistant city editor Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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