The volunteers generous spirit provides some much-needed relief to our soldiers overseas while they’re away from loved ones. In many ways, these care packages become a soldier’s lifeline to everything they’ve left behind. And everything they’re fighting for.
When a soldier hears the magical words, “Mail call!” you can bet there will be a lot of activity around the camp. Nothing comforts more than letters and gifts from home.
That’s why every Monday at noon the Hibiscus Recreation Center in The Villages is a hub of activity. The Operation Shoebox volunteers are packing 600-800 “personal comfort bags” to send to American troops stationed in various parts of the world. When preparing for the holiday season, they may do 1,000 to 2,000 stockings or drawstring bags every Monday.
Last year, Operation Shoebox spent $109,000 for postage. Every bag or stocking is mailed in bulk in cardboard boxes. The group switched from shoeboxes to drawstring bags when they realized how much postage could be saved.
In the smaller room at the rec center, another group is writing cards so each package contains a personal note. While these groups are stuffing and writing, another group down the road at Lake Miona Recreation Center is sewing bags and stockings. Everything included in this process is donated.
“I have people all over the country working on this,” says Sandy Dechristafaro, who oversees The Villages volunteers. “We have the very best volunteers—up to 500 when the snowbirds come back. They’re dedicated to this.”
It all started in 2003 in Mary Harper’s living room in Belleview. At that time, Mary had four sons, a daughter, and a son-in-law on active duty in the United States Army. When her children began writing her about needing personal hygiene items, she began sending them travel-size items in shoe boxes.
“I sent them wipes because they couldn’t bathe for days,” Mary says, “and lotions because the desert air kept their skin so dry.”
Realizing this was a need for every soldier, Mary began mobilizing volunteers and created Operation Shoebox.
One mother’s effort to help her children be more comfortable has grown into a nonprofit organization that provides personal comfort items for as many soldiers as possible wherever they serve.
“We send everything,” Mary says. “We do it in volume. If the soldiers who receive this stuff can’t use it, they pass it along to the Iraqi people. The Iraqi kids are saving our troops’ lives over there because we send them Beanie Babies.”
Mary eventually moved the operation from her living room to buildings on her Belleview property. Volunteers are there stuffing bags every day.
“We’re hoping to open a thrift shop soon and get a storefront that’s big enough for our volunteers to work in the back of the store where it’ll be air-conditioned,” Mary says.
With three of her children still in military service, this continues to be a personal agenda for Mary, her family, and the many volunteers in Belleview and The Villages.
“Whatever we get, we find a home for it,” Mary explains. “What we can’t send to the soldiers, we take to the Veteran’s Hospital or the American Legion.”
Of course, Mary couldn’t do it without the help of countless volunteers like Jeane Weber, who has been volunteering with the organization for four years.
“We started at Pimlico Center in The Villages, but it was just too small, and we had to move to a larger center,” Mary says. “It’s a very rewarding thing to do.”
Art Dilks agrees with her. He initially thought he’d come and work for a couple of hours, but he laughs and says he’s been doing it now for three years.
“I know how grateful these guys feel because I was over there in Desert Storm,” Art says. “I was in the Delaware National Guard for 32 years before I retired.”
Marty Forberg is one of the newest volunteers and has only been going to the Monday afternoon session for a few weeks.
“I asked my neighbor about it, and then I just came down here with her,” Marty says. “I’ve been coming ever since.”
Jeane Weber mentions she received a letter from a soldier a week ago.
“He talked about how much they appreciate the bags and how they like to share them with others. He was on his third tour of duty, and he signed up when he was nineteen,” she recalls. “It brings tears to your eyes when you read this stuff.”
Barbara Ducasse oversees the volunteers who spend two hours every week writing notes to soldiers.
“Our goal is to send at least 30,000 cards at Christmas,” Barbara says. “I write at home every chance I get. If I could learn to write with a pencil between my toes, I would.”
When they’re not filling bags or stockings for military personnel, Operation Shoebox volunteers are planning or attending events to raise money for postage. On any given day, you may find the group doing a yard sale or a Chinese auction, and you never know what you’ll find for sale at these events.
“We had a Marine in full dress uniform who said he would agree to do whatever was needed by the buyer,” Sandy says.
The woman who “purchased” the soldier took only a chaste kiss.
“All you have to say is, ‘I have a need’ and they’re here,” Sandy says. “I can call people at 10 o’clock at night, and say I need something tomorrow, and it’s done.”
Volunteers with Operation Shoebox often receive correspondence from the soldiers in Iraq. Here are two powerful examples:
Dear Lawrence Brett,
I appreciated the note you sent and am so proud to be here in Baghdad. Despite what you’ve seen in the media, we are making a difference. Schools, roads, hospitals, [and] water treatment plants are being built or reconstructed to improve the lives of the people of Iraq. I shall continue to keep my “American family” in my prayers. Thank you for all your work.
—Major Antonio Gonzalez
USAF, Joint Contracting Command,
Dear Bill Borg,
It’s such a nice feeling to receive gifts from supporters. I’m in Afghanistan for the second time—I was here for eight months the first time. I’ve only been in the country for a month so far, but I’ll be here for a year. You and your organization are an inspiration to us here.
—Sgt. Sarah Kinsey,
82nd Airborne in Afghanistan
Want To Help?
All items mailed to troops are donated. The following items are always needed and appreciated throughout the year. Look for donation boxes in Publix and Albertsons stores.
Fruit Breezes (throat drops)
Writing Paper and Envelopes
Toothbrushes and Toothpaste
Powdered Drink Mixes
Kool-Aid Bursts (to freeze)
Tea Mixes (sweet—or tea bags)
Canned Fruit (pop top cans)
Canned ravioli or spaghetti (pop top cans)
Cereal (in small boxes)
Condiments Packages (ketchup, etc)
Girl Scout Cookies
Oatmeal or grits (instant)
Checkers and Chess (travel size)
CD Fanny Packs
CDs and DVDs, new and used
Hand-held electronic games