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