One of the last places you might expect to see American philanthropy in action is in supporting U.S. service members as they do their jobs overseas. An unusual and highly effective charity created by an American social entrepreneur, however, has become a favorite partner of our Special Forces and other military operators during their deployments in hot spots.
I recently spent time embedded in Serbia, the Republic of Georgia, and Kurdish Iraq closely observing a nonprofit called Spirit of America. Its mission is to channel citizen donations to projects in conflict zones to help American military forces and diplomats succeed. In the 79 foreign nations where it operates, Spirit has made itself invaluable to commanders. Former Special Ops chief Gen. Stanley McChrystal refers to the group as a “philanthropic rapid-response team,” and says it “brings all the nation’s strength together and focuses it at the point of need.” Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis says the nonprofit “has been worth its weight in gold.”
One fairly typical local partner of Spirit of America is Nadica Stosic—a Serbian business manager who is also a serious kickboxer. While she probably weighs 100 pounds with her boxing gloves on, she is a pony-tailed force of nature. Blunt, brimming with energy, funny, yet streaked with an unmistakable fierceness, Stosic was part of the opposition to Slobodan Milosevic. While still a teenager, she personally organized some of the largest rallies staged in her country against his policies. With support from the U.S. Embassy she established a nonprofit to push for integration of Serbia into the West, and an end to its reliance on Russia.
When Milosevic stepped down, and Serbia and NATO exchanged ambassadors, Stosic left politics completely. “For me, it was all defensive. I didn’t want to live in a rogue nation, constantly battling, where normal life was impossible. As soon as I could see a path for Serbia to become peaceful and integrated with other decent countries, I shifted my energies.” Now she is an administrator and human relations specialist at a busy corporation, though she still keeps an eye on public life as a good citizen.
A few years ago, military attachés at the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade approached Spirit of America. Knowing that the charity was faster, more flexible, and more personal than government could be in delivering micro-grants for local projects, U.S. officials asked if Spirit could lead an outreach in a sensitive part of Serbia where the U.S. is working to counterbalance Russian exploitation of ethnic conflict.
An influential community leader in Vranje, near Kosovo, was asking for help to renovate a dilapidated gym that had become a center of community activity and pride. The gym unified a cross-section of young people, and several kickboxers trained there had risen to the national team. “This is a poor border area, just the kind of region where resentments turn to hatred if you don’t have constructive institutions for young people,” warned the community leader—who was Nadica Stosic. Eager to help soften the brutal blood feuds that led to the Balkan wars dividing Serbia from the U.S. and our European allies, Spirit agreed to help.
The U.S. nonprofit supplied all of the building materials needed to transform the decrepit gym, and organized a mix of volunteer laborers to carry out the renovation: Spirit staff, local athletes, U.S. soldiers, Serbian soldiers, and U.S. Embassy personnel. It took two weeks of hard toil to replace the windows, walls, and roof, and finish the interior. Spirited then donated several thousand dollars of athletic gear.
As I visited the facility one year later, Stosic and Spirit founder Jim Hake asked a group of kickboxers what they thought when a bunch of Americans first showed up and said they were going to fix the moldy training center in their little city. “Candid Camera! We thought it was a spoof,” answered one in Serbian. The boxers were surprised by the helpfulness, energy, and passion of the U.S. soldiers who spearheaded the physical work. These men and women were not like the hostile image of Americans their parents had communicated.
“Spirit of America is very different from other groups I know,” observes Stosic. “It doesn’t have bureaucracy, but works directly with real people, all around the country. This is the right way to show someone you care for them.”
As a dozen or more young fighters swarmed around us, talking about their training, showing off their tattoos, and reminiscing about when the Americans descended and started swinging sledgehammers, Jim Hake tested ideas for his group’s next efforts in the region. “What if we had a contest asking for proposals on how to spend a charitable donation of a few thousand dollars? Maybe set up a Facebook page and let people vote for their favorite project?”
A good concept, the young men seemed to think. Then Hake asked, “If you personally had a couple thousand dollars given to you by everyday Americans for a charitable venture, what would you use it for?” The boxers paused to think, wheels turning as we watched. “I would protect homeless street dogs,” answered one. “Improve a city park, with exercise equipment,” said another. “Maybe another kickboxing club at a nearby village 12 kilometers away,” suggested a third.
The cultural effects of this gym renovation were on display throughout our morning visit. That same afternoon we got to observe some of the physical fruits. Several of the Vranje kickboxers were scheduled to fight in a big competition an hour and a half north. We all piled into cars. As we entered the “Balkan’s Best Fighters” auditorium, 400 competitors from Serbia, Bulgaria, Moldova, Hungary, Bosnia, Macedonia, and several other countries had already begun to face off. At the end of the two-day competition, several of the boxers from little Vranje emerged as victors. Stosic sent us photos of the champions, medals draped around their necks. They look proud. She is beaming.
Later during my embedded tour, Jim Hake was interviewed by a Serbian television anchorwoman. “I’m very happy to see a strong relationship growing up here between Americans and Serbs,” Hake told her. “I of course heard things about Serbs before I arrived. So I was really glad to come here and meet extraordinary Serbs myself.
“And I’m sure Serbs hear things about America. In Vranje, where our organization helped rebuild a kickboxing gym, I recently learned that many of the young men there had been told bad things about Americans before we showed up. Working shoulder-to-shoulder with U.S. soldiers and volunteers, though, gave people a chance to make up their own minds. And many misconceptions on both sides were dispelled.”
This adaptation from Philanthropy magazine’s Spring 2020 cover story was published at RealClearPolitics on July 11.