When my oldest nephew, now an Army SGT, went on his first deployment to Iraq , our family discovered just how critical it is for soldiers to gain the encouragement and boost of morale that comes from receiving mail from home. So we started sending letters and care packages to deployed troops through wonderful organizations like A Soldier’s Wish List. But over time we began to realize more than ever that the families here on the home front play just as crucial a role as their loved one serving thousands of miles away. They are the ones who make it possible for their soldiers to serve on the front lines. And the sacrifices they make everyday should not go unnoticed.
During my nephew’s first tour of duty we learned that Christmas can be a very difficult, disappointing time for families of deployed troops. As our military men and women serve around the world, many of their families back home are struggling just to make ends meet while Dad or Mom is away. So unfortunately their children wake up with little to no gifts on Christmas morning…as well as the pain parent being gone over the holidays. So with the help of our friends and church family, I started a small charity just in time for the 2007 Christmas season.
We quickly got to work finding struggling families of deployed troops and gathered toys and gifts for their children. Our living room became somewhat of a ‘Santa’s Workshop’ as individuals, churches and businesses dropped off toys, clothing, books, stockings and more. Friends from our church volunteered their time to help ship dozens and dozens of boxes to these heroic families. By Christmas Eve we had provided gifts for about 20 military families – a small venture on an average scale, but a huge victory for us.
As winter of 2008 arrived we were ready to do it all again, but realizing we just didn’t have the space, manpower and finances to collect, pack up and pay to ship all these toys, we moved forward with a new mode of operation. Growing up I have memories of adopting a child or family in need for Christmas through various holiday programs. It was such a meaningful experience to shop for gifts for a specific family and have an opportunity to more personally connect with the people we were helping and see the difference it made. Thus, our ‘Adopt a Family’ program was born. Once we approved a family for our program we connected them with a sponsor who would then shop for gifts for the kids and send them directly to the family. I knew we could potentially help a lot more families by doing it this way. But I had no idea how big it was about to get.
Word quickly spread and more families in need were applying and being nominated everyday. All we could do was work to find sponsors and pray that in the end we would have enough. After sending press releases to our local news outlet I got one response. Little did I know that one response would bring in enough sponsors to cover our entire roster of families. After the interview with one of our local news stations my e-mail inbox was flooded with inquiries from people wanting to help and soon our 2008 Adopt a Family program was a complete success.
Our Christmas program has steadily grown each year, but 2010 provided more growth and wonderful surprises than we ever expected. One local reporter was determined to get our story on the air and as a result of his broadcast and others, every single family on our list was taken care of, even with far more applicants than any previous year. The biggest surprise came just a few days before Christmas when a lady called to ask if she could drop off some toys. Knowing we had a few local families this year to give the toys to, I agreed. But I was shocked speechless when a truck pulled up packed full of toys that seemed to never end as we unloaded them.
By the time we emptied the truck our living room was jammed nearly floor to ceiling with hundreds of toys. I knew that a military post a few hours away still had a lot of families unable to afford Christmas gifts. So I immediately called my contact there and we drove a van full of toys to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri . The military police helped unload the gifts and began to tear up as they realize how many families on post would benefit from this. Seeing these tough military police choked up was something to watch!
The best part of this process is always the e-mails and phone calls we receive from families when they get their gifts in the mail from their sponsor, such as this one from an Army wife and mom at Fort Bragg, NC:
“My husband is on his second Iraq tour and we couldn’t be more honored. Still, money is very tight and it is a tough burden to have to tell your loved one, who is fighting a war, that he can either call home every other day or pay for Christmas gifts for our kids. But Thank Military Families provided gifts and stockings for each of our kids as well as many other military families in need!”
After spending what felt like every waking hour from November through December at my computer and phone coordinating this program, it’s all worth it when we hear from the families. But it’s equally encouraging to hear from the sponsors. So many of our donors say they got as much out of the experience as the family they helped.
In light of what our military men and women do everyday, putting their lives on the line and fighting for our freedom, Christmas gifts are a pretty small thing. But it is simply a way for us to say thank you. And when we speak with a deployed soldier who just found out his family was adopted and is in tears because he thought his children would have no gifts to open on Christmas morning, we realize it does mean something.
Now that January has arrived and we’re wrapping up the program, I’m back to writing full-time and I am thrilled to be able to spend some time here at Associated Content again. I look forward to publishing new work, checking out the articles I’ve missed and catching up with the awesome writers that make this community so worthwhile!