BAGHDAD, Iraq – Life for the children of Iraq hasn't always been full of fun and games. Forty percent of the Iraqi population is under 18, children who were born under the oppressive rule of Saddam Hussein.
The dictator's priorities were clearly not focused on children. The schools are dilapidated and ill-equipped.
A U.S. Army officer who calls himself "Chief Wiggles" is doing his part to change all that.
Chief Warrant Officer Paul Holton, from Salt Lake City (search), Utah, is an army interrogator based in Baghdad.
One day he saw a crying child on the other side of the razor-wire fence separating the American enclave from the rest of the city. He helped reunite the child with her mother, and calmed her down by giving her a stuffed animal.
That small gesture has grown into a major effort to help the children of Iraq.
"I knew the way to touch the Iraqi people was through the children," says Holton.
As an interrogator, he says, "a big part of my job is connecting with the Iraqi people so that we build a relationship, build trust. A big part of that is reaching out to them, and a lot of times that is through their families, through the children. That way, we're able to build a connection and change attitudes about America."
Holton decided to launch a Web site appealing for toys and money for the children of Iraq. He's gotten a phenomenal response.
In the past few months, people from all over the world have donated more than a thousand crates of toys, sporting goods and art supplies. They've also donated $35,000 in cash to buy more goods for the children.
On the day we met "Chief Wiggles," he was playing Santa Claus (search) in a land where there really is no Christmas, since most residents are Muslims.
Wearing only his Army uniform, but armed with piles of toys, Holton visited a girls' school to hand out gifts.
It was a misty December morning, and the school was barren and cold. The walls were blank, except for some murals in the hallways depicting scenes of military glory under Saddam Hussein.
The children sat behind crude and worn-out desks.
The chief brought a note of excitement and cheer to this bleak scene and brought smiles to the children's faces.
Holton has also delivered toys to five orphanages, four hospitals, one community center, one home for the handicapped and at least two other schools.
The chief says he's been overwhelmed by the response.
"The people back home want to feel they're part of something that's going on here," he said. "They don't want to hear just the negative news about how many died each day. And when they hear of the good things happening, they want to reach out for it and they say 'Yeah! Let me be a part of that,' and they put their heart into it."
Holton, too, clearly puts his heart into the toy-distribution effort.
"I'm thinking this is the way we're going to change things," says Chief Wiggles, "maybe change the world one child at a time."