Operation Treat

It’s Halloween in the desert! 100 deployed Airmen and Soldiers just went “trick or treating” thanks to my family and friends helping with a group care package. Everyone who participated really had a great time. It was mostly smooth sailing with, of course, the occasional lesson learned along the way. Here’s how it went:

Generous people. Bulk candy. 

Thanks to the group effort we were able get 80 pounds of candy! This included 27 pounds of m&m’s with 17 pounds of them personalized. The rest of the candy we bought in bulk from Amazon. Since we were mailing these before “chocolate season” (November to April) we made sure the rest of the candy was NOT chocolate—just in case the m&m’s melted, something would get there intact. I’m happy to report that everything arrived in a solid state.

personalized m&m's for halloween care package for deployed troops

This is what we had made for them.

bags of personalized m&m's

27 pounds of m&m’s and untold amounts of willpower to resist “sampling” any.

bulk candy mixed and stored in plastic bins for halloween project

As each bulk candy came in, we mixed it with the rest and stored in these bins until we were ready.

The lesson on this part was: if you’re going to have 80 pounds of candy in the house and you live with a child, remember to have candy on hand your kid CAN eat. We ran out of chocolate and Starburst (important food groups!) and I kept forgetting to get more because we were surrounded by sweets. My daughter Sofia got great at “quality control”….peering through the plastic and declaring, “that one looks damaged. We can’t send it. Can I have it?”

Toys and decorations

Toys have always been a care package hit. Since this unit has both Air Force and Army, we got bat gliders and skeleton paratroopers to represent each. We also bought temporary tattoos because nothing says fearless warrior like washable ink.

And, since Halloween serving platters are not standard issue supplies for troops, we made our own by decorating the inside flaps of the boxes with orange and black duct tape. We also added purple tissue paper that you’ll see at the end.

halloween theme temporary tattoos and orange and black tape to decorate boxes

I really hope these temporary tattoos get used🙂

Skeleton paratroopers.

Skeleton paratroopers.

Bat gliders for halloween theme military care pacakge

Bat gliders

flat-rate box decorated with duct tape for halloween care package

The kids made each box different, some solid, some patterns.

The assembly line & safety first

The boys started with the bulk bins and used measuring cups to scoop up the candy and fill the main treat bag. They also added the skeleton paratroopers and tattoos. When they finished that, they started decorating boxes with duct tape.

The girls worked on the m&m’s and put them in treat bags that we had made special stickers for. When they finished that they started on the Halloween and thank you signs.

Since the m&m’s were unwrapped candy, I had them wear FDA approved food safety gloves. In fact, the entire project started with me announcing: We cannot risk crippling force strength by exporting hardcore New York City Public School germs. Yes they laughed—and then washed their hands.

The one thing I wish I did here was double-check supplies before we started. When I grabbed all the boxes from the Post Office, I didn’t realize there were some Express Mail mixed in with the Priority. Noticing at the last minute, I had to run out and get the right ones.

bulk candy for treat bags

mixing the personalized m&m's in a bowl

We mixed the different m&m’s in the big bowl. But needed a more shallow bowl to be able to scoop.

personalized treat bag

This smaller treat bag went inside the bigger one. But it still thought it was boss. We had these stickers made. The skull and crossbones image is part of one of the unit patches for this joint forces team.

numerous treat bags


treat bags in bins

more progress…

treats in bins

and more…

halloween decorations and thank you signs for military care package

They did a nice job with the signs🙂

Pizza picnic

Since treat production took up most of my small apartment, I put a plastic picnic tablecloth on my daughter’s bedroom floor and served pizza and beverages there. There were no complaints from the workforce.

Say yes to help

Everything about this project was easy—until you times it by 100. Having help made all the difference, from the generous donations to production day with six great kids. One Mom volunteered to stay as long as I needed. I gratefully said yes and she brought a bottle of wine too. I should’ve asked her from the beginning but that’s my personal lesson to learn (over and over, apparently).

When it was getting late I decided that I would tie up the treat bags and pack them myself. Just then the doorbell rang. The mom and big brother of one the girls had come to pick her up. I had never met them before and within one minute they were both on the floor tying up bags—they said they were inspired by what we were doing and happily stayed an extra hour.

And earlier when another mom dropped off her daughter, she took one look around and came back with a small shopping cart to help us get everything to the Post Office. NYC is a walking kind of town and the Post Office is eight blocks away. Four of the kids came back the next morning to be the shipping team.

11 care packages to carry to Post Office

11 flat-rate boxes

The end results

We all had so much fun. The kids felt good doing good. And Sofia made me laugh for weeks as candy and supplies took over our home. She would look at all the candy she couldn’t have, then look at the reams of bubble wrap she couldn’t pop and then give me a “really?” look with a straight line for a smile and hold it until I cracked up.

Of course the real end result is how happy it made the troops we sent it to. The m&m’s were especially loved and multiple bat gliders and skeletons have already been launched. So both home and away, Operation Treat was a success!

treat bag and bat glider for halloween care package

What each troop got.

treat bags packed in decorated box

We added bubble wrap to fill any gaps so the bags wouldn’t move in shipping. We didn’t want to be candy crushed🙂

© Gina left the mall, 2016

A Sporty Guess And A Romantic Clue

I don’t know much about the two female troops I adopted (one Air Force, one Army). But I know one likes college football and the other likes romance novels. With these pieces of intel as my north stars, I set out to make their first care packages.

Everything I know about college football

  1. If I turn on a Florida Gator game or walk into a room where their game is on TV and I am not wearing my “chomp chomp” Florida Gator t-shirt, they will lose. This is not hard science but it may as well be because my fiancé believes this to be true.
  2. I’ve been to one college football game in my life and it was The Ohio State University versus some team that also wears red and white uniforms so the entire stadium looked like one fan base. My two favorite parts of the game were a) a small mammal ran across the length of the field to deafening cheers and b) the band did that script Ohio thing and it was pretty amazing.

So, with that extensive background to draw upon, I bought some sporty magazines along with healthy snacks. But I wanted something that captured the spirit of fun too. Since I have no idea what this Airman’s base is like or how much space she has, I got tiny table games because who doesn’t have room for that? Then Sofia picked out a sports sound effects machine. I can guarantee that every button works because she insisted on “testing” them multiple times. To enjoy the sound of some other child testing it, click here.


Kissing is ewww

Sofia was helping me shop for these care packages so she was with me as I perused the romance section of the bookstore. Looking at the cover art of couple after couple locked in tortured embraces on the verge of epic kisses, she gave her critical review: ewwww. Now do I think kissing is yucky? No. Am I okay with her thinking it’s yucky? Sure.

I don’t read romance novels but this Soldier told me a writer she liked so with that clue, this would be easy. Except that the only titles the bookstore had avail were either e-books or very old so maybe she read them already. Sofia examined the blurbs on the books to help me decide. “Mom, this one is more Romeo and Juliet and this has more adventure and I think I’ll read this one and this one and…” What?!? What happened to ewww?! Not liking this sudden turn of events, I quickly got a reco from the salesclerk and left. Then I added candy to this care package—but nothing chocolate (remember, don’t send chocolate between April and November to hot climates).

A sure thing

When you shop for someone you don’t know, there is a lot of guesswork. But what you can 100% bet on is that whatever you choose will be appreciated. Because what is really being received by our troops, is the certainty that the people they serve and sacrifice for have not forgotten them.

© Gina left the mall, 2016

I Adopted Some Moms

Deployed moms. One in the Army, one in the Air Force. Usually, I take whoever is next, but this time was different. This time I went looking for the moms. I won’t tell them why. I’ll just send letters, care packages and be upbeat. But I figured I could tell you.

Pre-missing my own mom

Last year my mom had a stroke. Turns out she has a chronic brain bleed and a small aneurysm over the area of her brain that controls speech and memory. Apparently there is no treatment, cure, or expected progression. She could be fine or get worse. She could have more strokes. Or not. No one knows.

She’s doing better now but we live in different states and over the phone, I can hear what’s missing. I hear the blank spaces for words she can’t find and events she can’t recall. I feel like I am losing her very very slowly. And joining a club I don’t want to belong to (I have friends with parents who have Alzheimer’s and other challenges).

Sometimes I fear that the space between us will one day be more than miles. It will be a gulf that all the love in the world can’t cross. And she won’t know us. Then some days I just feel incredibly grateful for where she’s at now.

This pain of current and possible separation makes me want to DO something. But what can I control? I can try to lessen the ache of separation for some other mother and child.

Pre-missing my daughter

I get that this will sound silly. But my daughter is going to sleep-away camp for the first time for three weeks this summer and I’m not ready. SHE’S ready. But not me. This will be the first time we’ll be apart this long. I never went to camp as a kid so this is a foreign idea to me.

Also, I’ve been a single mom since she was five. Yes she sees her dad, but she’s with me most of the time. We’re a team. Although one member of the team could clean up more but, she’s my super girl. I dread her empty room. And I can’t imagine not getting the daily details of whatever good, annoying or LOL things happened. She jokes that she’ll have some of her stuffed animals have “sleepovers” in my room while she’s gone to help me. I laugh but part of me is considering it.

So what can I do about this? I can remember to have perspective. Yes it’s okay to miss Sofia. But I need to remember that other moms are separated from their kids for much longer and for much more serious reasons. Maybe a good way to keep that top of mind is to ease their time apart.

Mom on the brain

Strength is a beautiful, wonderful thing. But lately there have been days when I don’t feel so strong. When I wish someone would scoop me up and “mom” me a little. Make me a grilled cheese sandwich, bring me a soft blanket, snuggle on the couch and tell me everything’s going to be okay.

So how can I feel better? I think giving to others makes us more joyful and stronger inside. Taking action—the act of caring—is its own reward. And, since I’ve had “mom” on the brain and in the heart, I figured adopting these troops who are moms would be a good step to take. For them and me.

My daughter's handprints when she was two years old.

My daughter’s handprints when she was two years old.

© Gina left the mall, 2016

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.❤ 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