4 Lovely Surprises

The package in my mailbox had a return address in the Middle East. It was from Drew*, my adopted Airman. I wasn’t expecting to hear from him. Well, no volunteer expects anything. You do it to be supportive as our troops do a difficult, dangerous job for long hours far from home. Some troops wish to connect and have access to do so, others do not. Whatever they want is fine. And up to then, Drew had not been in contact.

However there—squeezed in amongst the relentless Christmas catalogs that kept coming while we were away at Grandma’s for the holidays—was Drew’s mail. Lovely surprise #1.

Inside the package was a beautiful letter thanking me and my daughter Sofia for our support. We were really touched. Especially when we learned how much he loved the postcards. Sofia had sent him 19  (with one word each) and they were all scenes of New York City.  It turns out that Drew is also from New York Ctiy! We had no idea we were sending him little pieces of his hometown. Lovely surprise #2.

“I hope you find a place for this in your home”

Yes Drew, there is a place in our home for your kind gift. And a place in our hearts for you, your family and all that you do.

Souvenir art from deployed troop

He said it was a small token of his appreciation. But there was nothing small about the smile it gave us.

Surprise #4

I don’t know if Drew will get the letter I sent on New Year’s. Or the one I am sending to thank him for this. Why? He is going home sooner than I expected. And that’s the best surprise of all.

*name changed for privacy

© Gina left the mall, 2016

Silent Night?

I haven’t heard from my adopted Airman yet. That could be for many reasons. Troops are busy—many work 12-16 hr days, 6 or 7 days a week, they go out on extended missions, they may not have access to email, plus they’re already doing so much—you don’t want make them feel they “have” to do more to get support. So there are no expectations or strings attached. If someone is “silent” you keep on supporting them anyway.

That said, I’ve only had very Un-silent troops in the past. When one couldn’t connect, his wife would reach out to me. Some would send long emails or even letters. And one told me more about field-dressing an elk than I ever wanted to know. I’ve been lucky to “meet” some amazing people and develop some lasting friendships. I’ve also realized that it’s a lot easier to make a care package when you have some idea of what someone wants, needs, or is missing. In the absence of that hard intel, and with the Christmas mailing deadlines quickly approaching, I had to make some decisions.

I know from past care packages that candy and silly toys were always a hit. So I figured I’d do that. But I also yearned for a Theme to have some fun with. So, in the loosest possible definition of Theme, I came up with:

Things That Are Red, Things That Are Green

That’s right. And let me tell you I made myself laugh in the aisles as I used that as my shopping guide. Spiderman erasers? Red licorice? Sure. Green ninja pinball and dried wasabi peas? Toss ’em in! Maybe in the randomness of the selection, I’ll hit on something he loves.

Now in case my loose Theme was too subtle, I added red and green tape. My daughter added the holiday emoji stickers because she has a thing for emojis (and texting me loooong messages consisting solely of emojis).

Holiday Care Package with Red and Green theme

As you can see, the Things That Are Red, Things That Are Greeen theme is easy to pull off :)

A Quiet Win

I hope that when my Airman opens this box he smiles. I hope he feels a genuine sense of care—that there are people back here rooting for him and that it does not go unnoticed that he is far from friends and family while we gather with ours. And while a smile doesn’t make a sound, it’s possible for it to have a resounding impact.

© Gina left the mall, 2015

Coffee That Stays Warm for Four Years

He wrote, “I have no idea how we met.” Turns out that Alex* was looking through old emails and found some of ours. So he wanted to wish me a Happy Thanksgiving. I admit, I wasn’t sure either. So I did some digging and found out that I had sent him a cup of coffee when he was deployed through Cup of Joe in November. That would be November 2011.

I’ve “met” a lot of wonderful people through this program and even become good friends with a few. In fact, one of them has helped me tremendously and generously with this blog. He’s one of my go-to people for understanding and writing about PTSD. There are others I have bothered for help in different areas. All of them have been very giving with their time because they know I want to make sure what I share rings true.

So I thought that serving more of this special coffee would be a great way to pre-game today’s holiday meal.

What I wrote

Dear Servicemember,

Today is Thanksgiving and you are definitely on the list of people my family is grateful for. Thank you for all you do! Today is also my daughter Sofia’s 11th birthday. Because it always falls near or on the holiday, there’s always birthday cake. So when she was little she’d get confused and wish anyone she met a, “Happy Thanksgiving Day To You” to the tune of the Birthday song. When she was 3, we took her to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. She asked if it was all for her birthday. Her Grandpa said, “Yes!” Lol, I said “Great. Now her parties are all downhill from here.” Well, I hope this coffee and note helps make your day a bit brighter. That, and knowing you are never forgotten.

Sincerely, Gina

How to serve

If you’d like to serve some of this amazing coffee yourself, go to Cup of Joe. I’ve spoken of them often, but the short version is: for $2 you can send a cup of coffee with a personal note to a deployed servicemember and there’s an option to be pen pals if you both want to. You can send as many as you want, or simply one.

Deployed troops enjoying Cup of Joe

Deployed troops enjoying Cup of Joe (photo credit: Green Beans Coffee, COJ)

And from my family to yours, we wish you a very Happy Thanksgiving!

*name changed for privacy

© Gina left the mall, 2015

It’s A Boy!

That’s right. Last week I adopted a servicemember and I got an Airman. This week my daughter Sofia sent him a fun “letter.” She wrote him a message—spread out over 19 postcards! We’re calling it a Postcard Scramble. As you’ll see, it’s pretty easy.

Postcard Scramble

  1. Write your message on a piece of paper. This way you know how many postcards you need.
  2. Write one word of your message on each postcard.
  3. Above each word, identify where it falls within the message. So “Dear” was 1 of 19. His name was 2 of 19 and so on.
  4. Address and add postage—35¢ for postcards.
  5. We shuffled them and mailed in batches of 4 or 5 over a few days because we’re hoping to make more than one mail call.

Here they are after she finished writing (and before I added his info). On two of the cards she put more than one word because, “they are important.”  Can you solve the scramble?

Postcard Scramble idea for deployed servicemember

Sofia’s Message

Dear Drew*

My mom adopted you so that kinda makes you my big brother :) Thank you for your service. <3 Sofia

Originally she didn’t want to add the number system (1 of 19 etc) but, there’s a fine line between fun and annoying. Plus I wanted to make sure the right message came across: that we care that he’s out there and that we are grateful for all he’s doing.

*name changed for privacy

© Gina left the mall, 2015

Beyond the Holiday

I was at church recently and the priest said a community kitchen was looking for volunteers to serve, “not at the holidays.” Apparently they had ALL the volunteers they needed around Thanksgiving and Christmas. In fact, they had to turn people away. But the problem was that people were hungry all year round.

That “year round” idea was on my mind as I thought about Veterans Day. There are some great celebrations, big and small, to honor those that have served and are serving now. That’s a good thing. But when the music fades and the sun sets, they still need our support. Especially when they are far from home.

What to do?

I always say, “do what you can.” No matter how you show kindness or give of yourself, sincere effort in any measure is always appreciated. For me, this year brought some challenges to people I love so… I’ve done smaller things. A cup of coffee here, a postcard there. Nothing wrong with that. However, after a while, I took it for granted that I couldn’t do more. But then I remembered that terrific friends and amazing readers have offered to help. Why is it so hard for me to say yes? If you ask my mom she will tell you— with love—that I can be thick. Hmmm…

So I’ve decided it’s time to adopt a deployed servicemember again. That’s a commitment of one letter a week and one care package a month for the duration of the deployment. And I’ve decided that if I need help, I will ask. When you adopt, you can choose male or female and the branch of service (Army, Air Force etc). But I have my own special system for choosing. It’s whoever is next. Whoever has been waiting the longest is the person I want. I will let you know next time if it’s a boy or a girl :).

So while I’m starting this up again on Veterans Day, I’ll be doing it long after the holiday. And speaking of post-holiday, I’ll also take my daughter down to that community kitchen on some random weekend to lend a hand. After all, kindness is never out of season.

letters to the troops

© Gina left the mall, 2015

Deploying Snowballs To The Fight

What do you do when you have a troop in the desert that misses winter? You send him snowballs! Of course, a soggy box of real snowballs (a.k.a. water) does not have a high fun factor. Plus neither the U.S. Postal Service nor the Dept. of Defense takes kindly to boxes leaking liquids.

However, I solved this shipping/climate challenge with Hostess® sno balls®. I figured it was a delicious way to give him a taste of winter. These treats became the main ingredient in my snow-themed care package for Brendon*.

Winter-themed care package with "snowballs" and more.

Winter-themed care package with “snowballs” and more.

This mini winter wonderland included:

Hostess sno balls – a bunch of 2-packs and two boxes of sno balls underneath

“Christmas snow” instead of bubble wrap

7ft strings of paper snowflakes

Snowman mug

Bacon-flavored instant cocoa. Yes, they make this. I also included other flavors.

Cocoa toppers- little sugar snowmen with candy cane straws that you garnish your cocoa with. What warrior doesn’t need this?

Snowman cookie- if you’re a longtime reader, you know I don’t bake. But if you need a deployment-friendly recipe, Wendy at The Monday Box has smiling cookie snowman stacks she says are easy but take some time to put together. Or search her blog with the words “military care package”.

As close to Alaska as I can get

I am in touch with Brendon’s wife Ashley and I asked her if she thought he’d like the decorations or if he’d think it was silly. She said, he’d love it. When I mentioned the sno balls she laughed because that’s one of his favorites. Double-yay!

Then I asked her if she had any other ideas I could add in. She mentioned she heard that someone from their home state of Alaska once sent over a small vial with some melted Alaskan snow. I decided to stick with sno balls and not try this because:

1. I don’t know anyone in Alaska.

2. There is no snow on the ground by me right now (Manhattan) and even if there were…

3. pure New York City snow just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

The forecast ahead

According to the Farmer’s Almanac, the weather forecast this winter is essentially: DOOM. Some areas of the country have already had a sampling of this. So, it may be hard to see at this chilly moment how someone could be wistful for the powdery nemesis of commuters and school principals everywhere.

But home is home. Whether it’s palm trees, city streets, or Santa’s neighborhood. And no amount of distance can keep the people, sounds, sights, and tastes of home far from our hearts. So I’m sending him a snow day filled with warmth and good wishes. Hopefully I sent enough sno balls that he can share. I wouldn’t want a fight to break out.

*names changed for privacy.

© Gina left the mall, 2014

Your Child Can Help A Military Child With :15 to :30 Of Joy

Sometimes all a kid really wants for Christmas is to have mom or dad home. At least that can be the case for thousands of military children who have a parent that is deployed. While the folks at The 9/12 Generation Project can’t grant that wish, they have come up with a way for students to help show support for military children called Operation Sending Hope.

Operation Sending Hope invites kids grades 6 through 12 to create 15-30 second video messages for military boys and girls who will be without a parent during the holidays. A total of $1000 in grants will be given to the sponsoring schools or organizations of the students with the “best” videos. I’d hate to have to decide that contest. Kids are already maximum cuteness. Add a kind act on top of that and I melt every time.

There are actually two rounds of submissions. Round 2 is still open:

Sponsor fee: NONE

Deadline: midnight, December 17, 2015.

Who is The 9/12 Generation Project?

On 9/11, we saw the worst of humanity. But on that day and the difficult days that followed, we also saw tremendous acts of courage and kindness. People came together from all over to help and The New York Says Thank You Foundation was created to give back. It’s goal is, “to build hope and provide healing to people around the world as a way to continually ‘pay it forward’ for the humanity, kindness, and volunteer spirit New Yorkers – and all Americans –experienced on 9/12.”

The 9/12 Generation Project is the service-learning program of the New York Says Thank You Foundation. They are the educational experts that hope to inspire students to take action. They create programs, “focused on community revitalization, disaster relief, and the arts” to let students see the impact they can make.

Where will these videos appear?

These videos will appear on the 9/12 site, social media, and The Military Child Education Coalition will be helping get the videos out to military children.

Operation Sending Hope? Joy?

I know the 9/12 folks named their program “Operation Sending Hope” but I also think there will be a lot of joy in this operation. In the doing, the sharing, the giving and the receiving….so that’s why I put some joy in the title of this post. Of course, the people at 9/12 are professional educators and me—I’m the one who did the class project for my adopted soldier that had a few mishaps, but I digress…

No matter what you call this program, it’s a wonderful way to make civilian kids more aware of what kids just like them go through when mom or dad serves in the military. It’s empowering for any child to see that their words and actions make a difference. And it’s comforting for any child to know that they have not been forgotten.

I know there’s not a ton of time but, if you’d like your child to participate, you can click here. In the season of thanks and giving, this seems like 15 to 30 seconds well spent.

Operation Sending Hope from 9/12 Generation

Photo credit: 9/12 Generation Project

© Gina left the mall, 2014