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

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

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

Giving Thanks to a Soldier, a Friend, and a Stranger

If you have thanks in your heart but don’t have the words in your pen or keyboard, I invite you to use some of mine. Why? Because it has come to my attention that some people hate writing. It could be just people I’m related to (especially at homework time) but I suspect they are not alone. That’s why I’ve jotted down a few words that may come in handy this week for anyone that needs them.

There are many things to be grateful for. Such as the fact that there are too many to list here. So my joyfully incomplete list includes three people you may wish or need to give thanks to on November 28th: a soldier, a friend, and a stranger.

Soldier

Somewhere, thousands of miles from home, there are Soldiers, Airmen, Marines, and Sailors you’ve never met who would do anything to keep you safe, up to and including sacrificing their lives. They raised their hand and took this on. However, choosing this life doesn’t make their hearts less vulnerable. If anything, they appreciate the moments with their loved ones even more. Everyday things like reading to your child at bedtime become like treasure.

I know you’ve probably heard the words, “remember the troops” a thousand times. Possibly a few of those times were me. But the truth is that it’s important they know they are not alone.

One way to remember them is to send a thank-you with coffee through Cup of Joe (COJ) Below are two options if you’d like to do this but need some ideas on what to write:

1. Simply replace the underlined details with your own.

Dear Service member,  My two brothers, sister-in-laws, their kids, my parents, and 2 dogs are all headed to my place for Thanksgiving and then sleeping over. Along with my family (husband, 2 kids 1 dog, 1 cat, 1 turtle) this is the recipe for craziness. The very best kind. Sure, every dish may or may not turn out perfectly. Someone may or may not fight over the X-box. But this much is certain: we are grateful for your help in making this day possible. Because of what you do, we have the freedom to be together in safety. Thank you for this on Thanksgiving and every day. Sincerely ___________________

If you’re not hosting the dinner, you can change the opening to reflect your plans, “We’re headed to _________”

2. Copy or change as you like.

Dear Service member, It is Thanksgiving and you may be far from home, but you are not far from our thoughts. It is your service, and that of your brothers and sisters in arms that allow us to gather at the table, free from fear. Not everyone in the world enjoys this amazing gift. So, I wanted to take a moment to say thank you. Please tell your family that my family thanks them as well. Sincerely_________

Each cup of coffee you send costs $2. You can even send just one.

A friend 

My family is spread out from NY to the Pacific Rim (that’s geographic, not cinematic.) For me, Thanksgiving usually means heading to Nancy’s house on Long Island. If you’re headed to a friend’s and want to include a note along with the wine or pumpkin pie you’ll be bringing, here are my words:

Dear Nancy,  Just wanted to say thank you for including us and making us feel like family. Knowing we have a place to call home for the holidays means more than I can say. Not having to cook for five hours is also pretty exciting too. Thank you for all of it. You rock. xo, Gina

A stranger 

For the first time ever, I’m traveling ON Thanksgiving Day. I’m taking my daughter Sofia to Florida to see Grandma and Grandpa. For the journey through La Guardia Airport, we’re bringing a bag of candy to share. It’s for the Policemen, TSA agents, gate agent, flight attendants or whomever we meet. Maybe they wanted to work, maybe they got stuck with the shift. Either way, there are probably slightly more desirable ways to spend a day devoted to family than x-raying a stranger’s carry-on luggage. Plus, since holiday travel can be stressful, any drop of kindness is probably a good thing.

This time, the words we’ll use are simple and what I wish for you and those you love:

Happy Thanksgiving!

Some of the candy we'll give out at LaGuardia Airport on Thanksgiving Day

Some of the candy we’ll give out at LaGuardia Airport on Thanksgiving Day

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Monster Coffee

“Dear Soldier, Today is Halloween so, along with this cup of coffee, I thought I’d send you a scary story. My 8-yr-old daughter decided she wanted to be a Monster High girl for Halloween. On the off-chance that the Dept. of Defense does not issue Monster High Dolls with your combat boots and you are unfamiliar with them, simply imagine fashionable werewolves, vampires, etc who go to a super-cool high school. As far as I can tell, there are 10 girls and 1 boy at this high school.

My daughter put on her costume and suddenly my little 8-year old looked 16. That was frightening. Later today, she will go ask strangers for candy (clearly a Mom did not invent this holiday) and be surrounded by monsters and more, laughing and having a wonderful time. Of course, one reason she can enjoy this holiday without fear is because of you. The hard work you do helps keep us safe. Thank you for helping my daughter have the freedom to scare me 🙂 We appreciate your service today and always. Sincerely, Gina

This is the note I sent to 10 troops this morning through Cup of Joe (COJ.) It’s twice as long as the messages I usually send but, unlike Twitter, COJ doesn’t limit my character count. That means I can do what I want. BWAHAHAAAAAA (I hope you read that with your inner monster voice.)

As always, COJ lets you send any amount of coffee to deployed servicemen and women for only $2 a cup. You can check the pen-pal option or not check it. Either way, most times you’ll receive a thank-you note. It’s a small thing but a terrific way to boost someone’s morale. If you’ve never tried it, I have to tell you it really is a great program.

Darth Vader kicking butt in a wheelchair

Darth Vader Tie Fighter Costume

Darth Vader Tie Fighter Costume (Photo credit: Tostie14)

A while back I happened upon a blog called Military Special Needs Network. Each staff writer is a military family member with a special needs child (or children.) They created this network to share information, inspire, empower, and connect other families in the same situation. They were also kind enough to help me with one of my soldiers who was facing difficulties. I am very grateful for that.

If you think of those you know with a special needs child, you have an idea of the challenges they face. The stress of deployment adds another layer. So does waking up one day after you’ve got a routine down with teachers and therapists your kid is thriving with and surprise…you’re moving across the country. Or to Germany. Possibly next week. Wheeeeee……

Sometimes when I read their blog I learn about things specific to our military families. Sometimes I gain a deeper understanding of the special needs world in general. And there are topics any parent could relate to. Like finding a great Halloween costume.

Until the other day, I never knew there was such a thing as Adaptive Costumes. In their post, Adapting Halloween, one of the links was for a great Pinterest page with adaptive Darth Vader, Batmobile, a little girl who turned her crutches into the front legs of her giraffe costume, and more. The creativity, the joy, the spirit…these kids looked great. And I think they knew it. Their smiles made my smile even bigger.

That’s one of the things we all want. To make the people we love happy. And sometimes, to make strangers happy too…with or without the aid of monsters. Happy Halloween!

MonsterCoffee

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Calming Anger With Sugar

I found out that mail is being stolen where one of my soldiers is deployed. Boxes from Amazon are particularly vulnerable. As someone who puts a lot of thought and heart into making sure a servicemember hears his or her name at mail call, this makes me angry. And that makes me want to do something.

My first thought

My first thought wasn’t a very nice one. I thought about getting an Amazon box, putting in nothing but shredded paper and a sign that said what I thought of thieves. This sign would have words that I’ve told my daughter, “we don’t use in this house.” And by “we” I really mean just her.

However, there are a few flaws in my evil plan.1. What if the box gets through and my soldier opens it? 2. Do I really want to be someone who executes an evil plan? No I don’t. Or, to quote Uncle Si of Duck Dynasty, “Nah!”

My second thought

Plan B was: Write a letter to a government official alerting them to this problem so it can be fixed immediately.

There are several flaws in this plan. 1. Who in the wide world of government bureaucracy, civilian or military, would I write to? 2. Of all the things affecting troops that need to be, “fixed immediately” one immoral mail depot probably ranks pretty low. Is it even a depot? Where in the process is it breaking down? I don’t even know who to be upset with! 3. In the era of sequestration, who has the extra manpower to look into this?

What I wound up doing

I sent a postcard because the message can be read by anyone along the way. This is what I wrote:

I heard your mail service was the worst and that I had no chance to get a card or letter through. Hope to prove that ugly rumor false. 

I think, “proving someone wrong” has a certain appeal. Maybe it will appeal to the rogue mail handler(s.) I have no idea because this is hard for me to understand. I mean, if you know the impact mail has on morale, why would you want to deny someone this? For material gain? What they are really stealing is a touch of home, of comfort, and of love.

After I sent the postcard, I still felt bad. So I decided to do something about that as well. Since I was feeling so negative, I would try to do something positive. I was never good at math, but somehow this made sense to me. Now instead of angry boxes, I want to share with you something infinitely sweeter. It made me come up with another idea of how to deal with my shipping challenge.

Meet Wendy

The holidays are coming and homemade cookies are a special kind of love. So to spread that love, I want to tell you about Wendy. I’ve mentioned her once or twice before but never made a formal introduction. Wendy is a mom who loves to bake and sends cookies to her son at college. She called her care packages The Monday Box. Eventually she started a blog of the same name where she shares her recipes and stories about her family. I was thrilled to learn that after reading this blog, Wendy started including recipes that could withstand the rigors of shipping to deployed areas.

If you go on The Monday Box and put the word “desert” in the search box, you’ll get every recipe that she made desert-friendly for our troops. Below are a few samples.

Chocolate Peppermint Shortbread Cookies (photo credit, The Monday Box)

Chocolate Peppermint Shortbread Cookies (photo credit, The Monday Box)

Orange Creamsicle Bar (photo credit, The Monday Box)

Orange Creamsicle Bar (photo credit, The Monday Box)

Hugs & Kisses Brownies (photo credit, The Monday Box)

Hugs & Kisses Brownies (photo credit, The Monday Box)

As I read through Wendy’s blog for these samples, I felt the warmth she sends with every batch. As I calmed down, I knew…I don’t want to be in some long-distance fight with a mailroom. I’m just going to do the best I can and hope for the best.

Then I thought, maybe if those folks had felt more of the love that Wendy or I try to send, maybe they wouldn’t resort to what they’re doing. If I ever did send a box with a sign, maybe it should be information where they could sign up for support. With cookies, a note could say, “I baked this for my soldier, but if you need it so badly to steal it, then take it. Enjoy it and give it to your friends. But support my soldier because after all that he’s done and all that he’s been through, he deserves nothing less. Send him a dessert yourself to make up for the one you’re enjoying right now. That would be great.”

What if the desert were flooded with sugar? Enough “home-baked love” to have, to share, maybe even enough to warm a heart that needs it. That would be sweet.

© Gina left the mall, 2013