OTWOCK, Poland --
Her words fell with a staggering weight as she began to recount the emotional journey that led her and her team of colleagues to this point.
Her purple glasses, pink-floral blouse, pink lipstick and thin gold chain necklace told the story of a bubbly, approachable woman, and her tone and articulation lent credence to her many years of education and experience. Yet through her smile, her struggle was apparent.
Pulling through the pandemic was already hard enough; organizations like hers had been forced to abandon their traditional practices for years or cancel programs altogether. What had once been an infallible annual tradition of teaching children English through an art summer camp in Poland was in triage for the third year in a row.
“This year had been a very hard year for me, personally,” said Mary Kay Pieski, co-president of Eagle-Orzel Educational and Cultural Exchange, Inc. who has a doctorate in cultural foundations of education. “I was up against a board that was saying no to me, and teachers that were saying, ‘No, we don’t feel comfortable.’”
Eagle-Orzel is a nonprofit cultural exchange organization between the U.S. and Poland has partnered with Poviat Youth Cultural Center in Otwock to host an annual summer camp for teaching English to Polish children through different arts.
The summer camp has become a tremendous part of Pieski’s life in many ways; it’s been an annual summertime staple for her throughout the past 27 years. Feeling as if she was faced with the abrupt end of something she has cherished so much fell onto her like a ton of bricks.
This year would be different, though. By partnering with the U.S. Air Force at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, Pieski and her eight colleagues would finally cross the Atlantic to join what she considers to be her overseas family once again.
“At that point, I was very concerned because most of our volunteers were hesitant to come to Poland this summer because of the situation in Ukraine, and also COVID was preventing us the last two years to come,” Pieski said. “I was so upset because I didn’t know how I was going to make this happen this summer.”
Up to this point, the last few years had been especially challenging for Pieski. Though vaccinations and relaxed restrictions eased travel challenges in the early months of 2022, she received gut-wrenching news she feared would permanently end her participation in the English-language summer camp.
“I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” Pieski said. “I made it through surgery and radiation, and I was like, ‘I’m going to Poland, no matter what,’ but I just couldn’t find the way.”
This year’s program in Otwock, Poland, was further complicated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – Poland’s neighboring country – which sewed uncertainty in the nonprofit’s board members and cast doubt in its security.
That’s when she called an old friend, Tech. Sgt. Matt Connelly, the innovation manager for the 52nd Fighter Wing, who first joined the summer camp as a teacher’s assistant roughly a decade ago.
“We would not be here at all if it wasn’t for Matt,” Pieski said. “His positive attitude, his assurance, his determination to work with us and make this happen for us … It was just incredible,” Pieski said. “It was an absolute, answer-to-prayer miracle that happened here on many levels.”
Connelly is the resident improvement expert at Spangdahlem Air Base. He teaches classes on process improvement and has helped countless members at the installation bring their workplace innovation ideas to fruition – ideas like Project Arcwater, the latest crowned champion of the Air Force Spark Tank innovation competition.
After speaking more with Connelly, Pieski had a way forward: Send a formal invitation to 52nd FW leadership asking Connelly to join.
While discussing the terms of joining the Eagle-Orzel bunch as a volunteer aid, it hit him: This was an opportunity for the Air Force, too. Connelly could help the summer camp continue forward, teaching both Polish and Ukrainian refugee children through humanitarian aid, while also field testing the Air Force’s latest big-name innovation.
Project Arcwater was pitched to provide two main services: Clean electrical power and ultra-pure drinking water. The system uses advanced solar fabric and an atmospheric water harvester to drastically slash greenhouse gas emissions, fuel and equipment transportation challenges, and their associated costs in order to provide sustainable services in austere environments – or in this case, a two-week children’s summer camp.
“Project Arcwater is the number-one innovation in the Air and Space Forces; we report to the vice chief of staff just about every two weeks about what’s going on with Arcwater,” Connelly said. “The option of stepping away even for a personal vacation or anything, it’s very tough when we’re in a one-person position. It was a phenomenal feeling to combine something that was both humanitarian and practical for the needs of the Air Force,” Connelly said. “I love doing these kinds of volunteer programs; I’ve done this before on two separate occasions, and it was always very fulfilling. If we can effectively double-book by not only doing innovation work but also doing educational and humanitarian work – assurance and deterrence – that’s just a combination made in heaven.”
Using only sunlight and water from the air, the innovation can sustain dozens of warfighters during Agile Combat Employment, but the system is designed for a wide range of applications like humanitarian aid and disaster response. What normally requires a large generator and countless 55-gallon drums of diesel fuel can now fit in the beds of a couple pickup trucks.
After a few months of coordination with the Polish State Department, U.S. embassy in Poland, 52nd FW leadership, and Arcwater’s developer, Senior Master Sgt. Brent Kenney, the solar fabric system, the water harvester, an air conditioner and a small tent were loaded into two pickup trucks and driven across two countries to join the Eagle-Orzel crew.
The system will be put to the test supplying more people for a longer time than it had ever been tested before. A success at the summer camp is a success for agile warfighter sustainment in operations around the world.
“Arcwater was designed for 55 adult individuals,” Connelly said. “This would be a situation where we have 75 children plus the adult cadre. What this would allow us to do is seriously stress-test the system for not just two days, three days, four days … it would allow us to stress-test the system for more than two weeks, and that was, in terms of data, absolute gold for us.”
The summer camp is slated to continue through July 8.