When Tom and Bonnie Taylor and about 25 others gathered for a traditional before-Christmas family dinner with Bonnie's family in 2009, they decided to share their holiday spirit with service members stationed far away from the states, in the Middle East.
"My older sister especially wanted her grandkids to realize that there are people serving our country who are giving up family gatherings," Bonnie Taylor says. "It happened that our daughter and her husband were both stationed overseas, and even though they were able to be together, we knew they'd be missing their family members. We also knew of some other people that our daughter said would appreciate a package."
Together the family members assembled care packages for several members of the military, including personal hygiene products, cookies, nonperishable snacks, decks of cards, crossword puzzle and sudoku books, and writing supplies. "My sister composed a letter thanking the soldiers for all they do, and then the kids each made a Christmas card," Taylor says. "Then one of my adult nieces and I were in charge of mailing them."
Taylor's family knew individual service members who would appreciate packages, but even those who aren't familiar with any particular military member might want to help bring holiday cheer to the troops. (In fact, because of security restrictions, it is no longer possible to send care packages labeled "Any Soldier.") That's where folks like Debbie Trippiedi, the founder of Operation: MOMS Cookies Inc., can help.
"You have to know someone in active duty to be able to send a package," Trippiedi says. "Or you need an organization like ours to go through. We adhere strictly to and follow all rules and regulations that are in place through the Department of Defense."
Trippiedi, who is the mother of an enlisted man, founded the organization in 2002. She says that each year, the demand for gift boxes increases, and now she and her band of dedicated volunteers are sending out more than 8,000 lovingly packed gift boxes throughout the year to military personnel serving outside the country.
Trippiedi and her group annually ship $1.5 million worth of products to service members who are overseas. "We always have a list of needed items on our website (http://www.MOMScookies.org), and anybody can help us by donating," she says. Most requested items are wet wipes, body wash, toothbrushes with covers, white crew or tube socks, writing supplies, envelopes, granola snacks and beef jerky.
By late July, Trippiedi already was gearing up for the holiday season. Because of the time it takes to assemble packages and mail them, she and her volunteers work at least 45 days in advance of any given holiday. Of course, because Christmas is a high-request season, filling boxes and fulfilling requests takes twice the time. During peak times, Trippiedi says she puts in as many as 75 hours a week for the organization. "In fact, we average more than 20,000 volunteer hours a year," she says. "I have marvelous volunteers."
"At Christmas, I have volunteers who sew 'camo' socks," she says. "We send out 5,000 of those socks, so we need candies and little Christmas-y things to put in those."
Operation: MOMS Cookies is based in northern Illinois but takes donations from across the country. Other care package websites to check out include http://www.UStroopCarePackage.com, http://www.OperationShoebox.com and http://www.give2thetroops.org. Keep in mind that packages take time to mail, so it's best to plan on sending Christmas donations to charitable organizations in plenty of time for mid- to late-November mailing.
"That's where we made our mistake last year," Taylor admits. "We waited a little too long to assemble and mail the packages, and they arrived in early January. However, we know that they appreciated them all the same. Christmas just arrived a little late; that's all."
Trippiedi says that although running the charitable organization is a lot of work, it is extremely fulfilling. "It is a labor of love for all of us. In our own way, we are saying 'thank you' to those who keep us safe," she says. "We want them to know, 'You are not alone. We remember and care.' We get hundreds of letters telling us how much our military appreciates not only the gifts themselves but also knowing that people back home really care about each and every one of them. It never gets old. I get emotional with every letter."