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

Today Is One Year

Happy 1st AnniversaryI couldn’t help but notice. Whenever I shared stories about “my” troops, people would suddenly feel connected to them too. Some would ask how about ways they could get involved. If I was talking to someone in the military, the stories touched their heart. So I decided to start blogging to see if I could help these good things happen more often.

It’s now one year later and I’m humbled and honored by the response of my amazing readers. I’m thrilled that many have been inspired to take action. Here are just a few examples:

-Thanks to readers, an Air Force family got help from Peyton Manning in a special way after the tornadoes in Moore, Oklahoma. Folks reached out, shared their story, sent supportive messages…the family felt comforted even before they knew Peyton would get involved.

-Wendy from the blog The Monday Box (care packages of home-baked love) was inspired to create some “desert-safe” recipes specially taste-tested to survive the rigors of shipping to a combat zone. Now she’s a valued resource for those wanting to send “home baked love” to the troops (or any bakers wanting travel-friendly recipes.)

-Dayna is a Veteran who is spending her civilian life having as many travel adventures as possible (35 countries and counting) She shares them on her blog Where In The World Is Dayna. Reading a post here made Dayna remember how much letters and care packages meant to her when she was deployed. So she adopted two soldiers.

-Another reader is a caregiver to a family member. Her situation is isolating and challenging. This reader was inspired to adopt some soldiers and use her love of writing to lift others up. She wound up lifting her own spirits as well.

-Natalie from the blog Mother Goose, was inspired to “do more.” So she turned her volunteer work, hand-making Blue Star Family banners, into a charity. She hopes to help more of these families connect and feel supported in their communities. She knows how important this is because she has two sons in the Navy.

-Many readers have told me they were sending coffee through Cup of Joe or adopting troops through Soldiers’ Angels or Adopt A U.S. Soldier or participating with the other charities listed in the Ways To Make A Difference page.

Then there are the comments and emails. I appreciate every note and the emails have been especially moving. Civilians have shared what volunteering has meant to them. Troops and families have said they feel like they have a voice here and how much it means to know that they are not alone. I should know by now to have tissues ready when I open my blog inbox.

Thanks and…

Thank you for coming here. For caring and for every kindness shared. Thank you for all you do. I’m also grateful for my “advisors,” both civilian and military who I bug with questions, bounce ideas, and receive invaluable feedback from (often on very short notice.) And thanks to all the wonderful and experienced bloggers who have encouraged and taught me along the way.

After my initial “hello” post, I wrote about the random event that started this journey. It’s called A Sailor Wrecks My Indifference. One year later, the last line in that post has taken on even more meaning.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

 

Do You Know Peyton Manning?

I got that question and these pictures from Jenn, an Air Force wife, trying to help her friends who lost everything in the tornado in Moore, Oklahoma. I asked her to explain.

Peyton Manning autograph in post-tornado rubble

A favorite picture found in the rubble of the Brown home.

The Brown Family home. Mom, Dad and son were here during the tornado.

The Brown Family home. Mom, Dad and son were here during the tornado.

The Brown Family

Jenn met the Browns when they were all stationed in Alaska. Robin Brown and Jenn were both teachers’ aids in the same school. Jenn’s husband and Steve Brown were both Airmen and the kids were friends too. In every branch of service, there’s a lot of moving. People come in and out of your life all the time. But because military life is so all-encompassing, the friends you make become family and stay that way despite time or distance. In civilian life, you may or may not feel this way about former co-workers and neighbors.

When the tornado hit, Steve, Robin and their son Caleb were in a shelter below their home. Their daughter Megan was a few blocks away and took shelter there. Other family members were horrified as they watched weather updates and saw the tornado heading towards the Brown’s street. With raging winds ripping apart their home beam from beam above them, Robin had doubts that they would survive. Steve did his best to be reassuring. They all prayed.

After the tornado passed, they realized they were trapped in the shelter. They smelled gas and it became more and more difficult to breathe. Caleb was able to get a text out that they were alive and needed help. Megan ran past block after decimated block to find her own home reduced to rubble, but at least she knew her family was alive. It took 45 minutes to dig the Browns out. Those minutes felt longer. But the entire family felt lucky and grateful to still have each other.

“I feel helpless”

If Jenn lived nearby, she and her family would help clear rubble. And cook food. And take them in. And do anything they needed. The fact that she can’t do these things makes her feel helpless. “I know they’re strong people, but they’ve already been through so much with Robin’s stroke and all. I wish I could do something for them.”

Then Jenn found out about the, “buried treasure.” Amazingly, as the Browns searched through the rubble, Steve found that a few precious items had survived. He found a bible that his grandmother had given him. He found his Air Force shadow box, a gift he had received when he retired after 20 years of service. And he found something else that meant a great deal to him, an autographed picture of Peyton Manning that he had bought at charity event at an OKC Thunder game. The picture was beat up, but at least it wasn’t completely gone. To Jenn, she had found something that she could DO. She could try to get that one special thing, “back to normal.”

When you have nothing left, recovering a special item touches and strengthens your heart in a tremendous way. It’s something to hold onto as you begin the long process of rebuilding your life.

Do you know…

I do not know Peyton Manning. I asked a friend in advertising who used to work on a major beer account (I figured beer…NFL.) but he didn’t have a connection. Linked In says Manning is out of my network (no surprise.) Another friend of Jenn’s had already sent a message to Manning’s website and thus far, there has been no response. So I figured I’d write this post and ask my readers.

If you know Peyton Manning or you know someone who knows him, please forward this post or email me so I may reach out. Of course, if you’re reading this and you are Peyton Manning, that works even better. In that case, I would add:

“Mr. Manning, as you can see, the Browns are going through a tough time. I’m hoping you can help Jenn do this kind thing for them. I’m hoping you can replace your photo and sign it again. With all that the Browns need, it may seem strange to request this. But I know having something they loved restored to them would lift their spirits. And that may be one of the most important things of all right now. If you would like their contact info, you can reach me here: gina@ginaleftthemall.com. Thank you for your consideration.”

Some help and little things

If anyone would like to help out in other ways, some friends of the Browns started a giving page to help them rebuild and the Red Cross is in Oklahoma trying to help all of these families who lost so much. Simply click the links to learn more or take action.

In many posts, I talk about how much the little things mean to our deployed troops. How a cup of coffee or postcard sent with a few kind and encouraging words is an incredible morale boost. But you don’t have to be deployed for little things to have this effect. I think it applies to any tough situation. There is a long to-do list for the Browns before they get even close to, “replacing treasured autograph.” But if we can make this happen, I think it will make that long list feel just a little bit lighter.

*********  UPDATE 05-29-13, 5:51p.m. EST: OMG! WE DID IT!!  *************

Sports Anchor Lionel Bienvenu at ABC News Channel 7 KMGH in Denver, was able to reach out to Peyton and they will get another signed photo to the family!!

JENN:  I am truly at a loss for words! My husband says for the first time ever (laughter) THANK YOU to Channel 7 and THANK YOU TO EVERYONE who made my friend and her family feel cared about and loved and so touched in the midst of these nightmare days for them.

There have been a flurry of emails, messages, and people going out of their way for this project over the last 1.5  days. I will have more details and thank you’s on the next post, but please know that I am incredibly grateful for all of your efforts!  xoxo, G

© Gina left the mall, 2013

When The Troops Supported Me Right Back

I never thought troops would send me a care package. Or letters and emails just when I needed a morale boost most. But they did. It really took me by surprise. It meant a lot to have people I’ve never met care enough to think of me. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a small taste of what mail call feels like for our troops.

No-Vent Zone

Everyone has bad days. But unless it ends with a happy twist like the time a mariachi band boarded my crowded subway car and burst into song, I don’t mention it. I keep things light. Luckily, my daughter Sofia provides plenty of humorous mishaps and mild public humiliations for me to share. You don’t think it’s possible for your 5-yr-old to accidentally “pimp you out” in an elevator but, you’d be wrong.

I had gotten to know a few troops well and they knew I was getting divorced and looking for an apartment to rent. I didn’t vent about this. Just a statement of fact. But you don’t need details to figure out that this is not fun. The apartment search had the bonus of coinciding with Thanksgiving which made getting approvals harder since everyone was on vacation. I needed to move the first week of December. That month was filled with change and challenge.  And, as it turned out, some very special mail deliveries.

The gift

My adopted soldier and his wife sent me a box. Inside were birthday and Christmas presents for Sofia. (Her birthday is at the end of November.) What a delightful and touching surprise! But what really got to me was the house-warming gift for our new home. A little cactus plant. It was sweet and hopeful and I loved it. It was also the first and only object in the apartment after I signed the lease.

What I didn’t know then was that my furniture delivery would be weeks late and this cactus would become a continuing source of sunshine through dark winter days.

What my adopted soldier and his wife didn’t know was that my birthday is near Sofia’s and that’s when the box arrived. This unexpected kindness was the best birthday gift I could have gotten.

A little house-warming gift from my soldier and his wife.

A little house-warming gift from my soldier and his wife.

It would be weeks before the furniture would arrive.

It would be weeks before the furniture arrived.

The letter

The furniture was late so we had mattresses on the floor and stacks of boxes. With no table, we ate our meals “picnic” style. And no Christmas decorations were up yet. I unpacked Sofia’s toys first so I could sorta set up her room.  Everything felt undone and overwhelming.

Then came the first time I had to take Sofia to her Dad’s place. After I dropped her off, I walked into the cold night with my heart feeling gutted without her. I went to my new lobby filled with strangers to check my mail. I had just done my change of address so I was surprised to find a card. Upstairs, in my undone apartment, I sat in her room and the emptiness was crushing. Then I glanced at the envelope in my hand and thought, “Who the heck is this?”

I didn’t recognize the name and in my achy blur, I didn’t notice the return address was Afghanistan. It was a Christmas card with one of those long letters that details the past year. It was from a combat medic that I had sent a few magazines and a letter to back in August while she was waiting to be adopted. Because of that small kindness, she had included me on her Christmas list.

As I read on, I discovered that she was mother of three. Her youngest was Sofia’s age. All of sudden I started crying. This woman would not see her children for a year. I would see Sofia in 30 hours. This woman lived in a combat zone. I lived semi-unpacked. Suddenly I thought: maybe I could suck it up for the next 30 hours. This mom I didn’t know helped me feel grateful for the blessings I had. With my spirits lifted, I went out that very minute and bought a Christmas tree and some lights.

In the coming days, cards from family and friends filled my mailbox. More troops surprised me as well. I loved them all, but I will always be especially thankful for the timing of that first card.

The email

It was New Year’s Eve and Jim, one of my soldiers in Iraq, asked about my plans. I told him it was going to be low-key. I really just wanted to be home with Sofia. Then I wished him and his family well.

That year, Sofia was determined to stay up till midnight and watch the ball drop. But she was struggling to stay awake. The countdown began and she said, “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, Zzzzzzzz”  And she was out. I hugged her tight and just after midnight my email pinged. It was Jim.

“I hope your evening with Miss Sofia is one you cherish as one of your best New Years yet”

I broke out into a big smile. Grateful for the kindness of being remembered. Appreciating all the ways my troops made me feel special when I was having a tough time.  And more determined than ever to do the same right back for them.

New Year's Eve

New Year’s Eve

© Gina left the mall, 2013