An Army of Kids Brings Joy to the Troops

One deployed joint forces squadron got a whole lot of love from three groups of kids across three states. I can’t thank them enough for all their support. Everything was gratefully and very joyfully received! Here’s a little about each project:

Stars of Hope

Thanks to the kids at Weston Middle School who created 100 beautiful stars!

Thanks to the kids at Weston Middle School who created 100 beautiful stars!

The kids at Weston Middle School in Connecticut took on this community service art project with Stars of Hope. The 100 hand-painted stars they created were a hit and I received this email from one of the troops,

“In the first 10 minutes after they arrived, they were already being hung up! There were so many of them hanging up, I hit my head on a few of them trying to walk into one of the offices! Lol” 

Stars of Hope is a charity that initially began as a disaster-relief program to spread hope and healing in areas impacted by natural and man-made disasters. But these stars shine wherever needed—like over our men and women bravely serving far from home at the holidays. Thank you to all the Weston Middle Schoolers who gave their time and talent!

Santa’s Elves

I wish I had a picture that truly captured everything that the Religious Education kids at St. Philip Neri Catholic Church in Fort Mill, South Carolina did for this project. They created and collected cards, stockings and all manner of Christmas joy—14 flat-rate boxes of it!

Christmas care packages from St. Philip Neri Catholic Church

This is a work in progress—they kept going!

A lot of heart and work went into this and it showed. This is from one of the troops:

Thank you for Thank you for St. Philip Neri Holiday Humor

I had lots of help here in New York for project #3. Now, these are not standard holiday images. But the skull & crossbones visual is part of the unit patch for some of these troops. And of course, their aircraft is pulling Santa’s sleigh! My friend Martin helped me with the art and my daughter was on sticker duty.

Then I roped in a bunch of fabulous kids ages 4 to 12 to make cards. Some of the kids hand-made their entire cards (looking at you Hunter and Joshua!) and the rest were personalized with special drawings or messages. But all of them did a great job. Also thanks to my friend Anna for chipping in to help get the wooden ornaments and candy.

ornements

 

ornaments2

These are the backs. All the fronts had the image of the plane pulling Santa.

ornements 3

Matteo is four years old and when his mom described the image I laughed. Then I asked her to include a description in each card.

Matteo is four years old and when his mom described the image I laughed. Then I asked her to include a description in each card.

After they arrived, I received the following note,

“Gina, thank you so much! We received the ornaments and have handed them out. They turned out wonderfully; the team is really excited about them….thank you for spreading the love and the joys of the season.” 

It takes a (holiday) village

Thanks to a small army of volunteers, there is a squadron in the desert who is certain that they are remembered and appreciated. I can’t think of a more perfect gift for the season.

© Gina left the mall, 2016

A Treat from the Troops

This sweet thank you is from some of the troops that received our Operation Treat project—where six kids helped me make 100 treat bags for a deployed joint forces unit. I wish you could’ve seen the smile on my daughter Sofia’s face when she watched it. It was followed by a long, “awwwwwww.” I sent it to the other parents and I’m sharing with you too. Happy Halloween!

© Gina left the mall, 2016

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

Progress…

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

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

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

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

Get Your Words In The Right Hands

Lynn is a young woman who had a “mall experience” around the same time that I had mine. That put her on an amazing path and led to a terrific project you may want to be part of. She sent me this note:

Gina! Hello…I feel like we’re kindred spirits. I left the mall too…just around 2009…It so happens that I used to write back and forth with a Marine there who had a tagline that read, “The Marines are at war. America is at the mall.” That was the first time I heard any derivation of that saying and it disturbed me greatly. It was the beginning of my inspiration for my new endeavor Words For Warriors Project. In a nutshell, I’m collecting letters of encouragement/support (from people with and without a military background) to our veterans. I’ve had the first lot published in a book… and I’m distributing them free of charge through our VA hospitals/clinics and veterans organizations. The feedback has been tremendously positive and I’m in the process of planning a second edition (to be published in August)

A few words from me

I really like that these books are finding their way right to the places where they are needed most, in the hands of our troops, both deployed and at home. It’s such a simple and lovely way our servicemen and women to feel the warmth and care from such a large cross-section of people. Lynn asked me if I’d like to contribute. Hmm…let’s see….um, YEAH! This is the note I sent:

To our men and women that serve,

I see your sacrifice everywhere—on a nice day by the water when everyone is out with friends and family, or while putting my daughter to bed with wishes for sweet dreams and kisses to help make them come true. These are two of countless everyday moments that you sacrifice with your loved ones.  And because you do this, I get to have those moments in peace and security.

Thank you.

Thank you for all that you give up at home. Thank you for enduring long days away filled with danger or boredom, stifling heat or bitter cold, camel spiders and other wildlife, and mostly for facing whatever the day brings with courage.

Please tell your family that I thank them as well. The missing, worrying, dealing with appliances and vehicles that like to gang up and break down the moment you leave, and sending care from 7,000 miles away is not for the faint of heart.

What you and your family do for the rest of us is not taken for granted. It is honored and cherished. Hopefully the words Lynn collects will help ensure that you never doubt this.

Sincerely,                                                                                      

Gina S.                                                                                        

p.s. my daughter thanks you too.

 A few words from you

To make a submission, email Lynn at: words4warriors1@gmail.com. She posts all submissions on her blog and selects some for the book. If possible, she asks for you to include a photo. To learn more about contributing, see other letters, or get project updates, click here.

Where do the words from your heart belong? Wherever they can make a difference.

© Gina left the mall, 2014

Update: If you submit a letter, don’t forget to add how you want to be identified. People usually do first name, last initial, and a descriptor such as occupation, hobby, or something they love. You can see examples on the Words For Warriors Project home page (just scroll down).

 

I Hope The Chaplain Likes To Party

I didn’t mean to send a New Year’s Party in a box to an Army Chaplain, but that’s what happened.

New Year's Party care package

New Year’s Party care package. The “beer bottles” are noisemakers.

I had just shipped the box when I learned that the soldier it was meant for got sent home for a health problem (don’t worry, he’ll be okay). So how do I know it’s headed for the Chaplain? Because when you fill out the customs form, you have options if the package is undeliverable. They are: 1.Treat as abandoned, 2. Return to sender, and 3. Redirect to address below. I always check the third box and write: Chaplain.

Mishap Upside

When I thought about it, I realized that if I knew the soldier’s info the day before, I would not have made the box. The whole reason I wanted to do a New Year’s care package is because I missed the Christmas shipping deadline for him (Dec 3rd). However, if anyone knows of a service member who needs a morale boost, it’s the Chaplain.

The truth is—the holidays are not happy for everyone. There is loneliness. Why else would a woman go on Craigslist to try to rent a mom and dad for a few hours for the holidays? There are life stresses; all kinds of pain, and none of those challenges are made better when you add a few thousand miles and gunfire. On top of that, events may occur in combat zones that can break your heart.

What if the Chaplain knows service members who feel forgotten? Or have no one at home to assure them they are loved? Perhaps an impromptu “party” hosted by a stranger is a way to add some joy to the New Year. Along with the Beer Nuts, noisemakers, poppers, and decorations, the box also contains superhero pop-rocks candy, popcorn, glowstick bracelets, chocolates, and other treats. Technically, none of these items have any curative powers. But perhaps the care they were sent with has a little.

Or maybe, hopefully, thankfully, miraculously, everyone is healthy in body and spirit while they are missing a loving home. A party is a good idea then too. I think when a Chaplain hands you a beer bottle noisemaker, you have to smile.

Right now

If right now you or someone you know is feeling hopeless or in crisis, there are places to find help for both service members and civilians.

Veterans Crisis Hotline and Military Crisis HotlineThey also have phone numbers on their site if you’re stationed in Europe or Korea. Call 1-800-273-8255 and service members press 1. Vets can also text “838255” for support. For civilians, it’s the main number 1-800-273-TALK (8255.) These programs are both part of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. I found this information linked to an US Army Suicide Prevention site, Wounded Warriors, and IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) as well.

Recently, I read these words by someone who overcame dark thoughts and feelings: be gentle to yourself. I liked that idea. We should all reserve a little kindness for ourselves.

2014

For 2014, I wish you all wonderful adventures, joy, and the hope that any mishaps have an upside. After all, things don’t always go according to plan. Maybe sometimes, that’s a good thing. Happy New Year!

© Gina left the mall, 2013

The Season of Getting

If you’re lucky, this is the Season of Getting. I don’t mean getting big-ticket items like luxury cars. Although you are lucky if you’re friends with the couple in the Lexus commercial who spend untold hours making giant red bows for their auto-gifting.

What I’m talking about is the feeling you get when you do something nice for someone who can’t repay you or even thank you. Often what you receive in return is greater than what you give. That is the beautiful irony.

Four years ago I received a request that I still think about. Partly because it makes me appreciate what I have, and partly because of the way my daughter Sofia responded. I’ve mentioned some of this request once before, but it still warms my heart. I’m still “getting” something from this.

The request

My infantry company is deployed to a remote outpost in Afghanistan. We spend most of our time in a very remote outpost living and working with the Afghan National Army, living a very meager existence. We don’t have showers or running water. We live twenty men to a tent, and live out of the back of our armored vehicles, or from our rucksacks. We are very far from home. Anything you could provide my Soldiers would be greatly appreciated. Some of my men do not have families in the States who can support them. Our communication back home is infrequent and unreliable. Letters and packages are our lifeline, and the only way we know that we are not out there alone. Nobody wishes for the end of war more than those of us who fight in them, but we are determined to finish what was started, and honor those who have served and fallen before us by completing this mission the best way we know how. Your support is invaluable. Thank you.

Our response

We decided to send one box of hygiene items and one of snacks. But to me, the most valuable things in those care packages were seven pieces of pink construction paper. Each one was a letter from Sofia. Each one, “had to be different!” This is a fine plan until you consider that Sofia had only recently learned to write.

As she made a mistake, she would crumple the paper in frustration. She asked me to help. She told me what she wanted to say, I wrote it down, and she copied it. Then she drew a picture. It was usually a heart or a butterfly. Or butterflies with heart bodies. Or both. This was a long, slow process and she really worked hard. I still have the “dictation” she gave me:

1. You are the most greatest hero in the whole wide world. Love, Sofia

2. Thank you for saving the world. Love, Sofia

3. I miss all of you, every single Soldier. Love, Sofia

4. I hope that all of you do not get hurt. I love all of you for saving the world. Love, Sofia

5. Thank you for being brave. Love, Sofia

6. Thank you for protecting us from the bad guys. Love, Sofia

7. I super miss all of the Soldiers. Love, Sofia

After I mailed it all, I imagined these troops receiving it. Maybe a few of them even folded up the pink letter and carried it with them. I imagined that when they finally did get to call home, they got to tell their loved ones that many strangers cared and sent them mail. I imagined what it must feel like for a parent or spouse to know this. Or maybe we just gave one of these guys five good minutes when he needed it most.

No matter what the actual impact, just knowing the real possibilities and potential ripple effect lifts my spirit. Of course our goal was to lift theirs.

The perfect gift

I will never forget how much care and effort Sofia put into this. It will always be something special we did together. So, as the last-minute holiday shopping commences, I hope you too are getting something wonderful—the gift and reward of kindness. However you choose to do it, it will be perfect. And if you need a red bow, you can have one of mine. 

red bows

© Gina left the mall, 2013