While most of America spends Christmas day surrounded by mountains of wrapping paper, festive food and family, many service members find themselves alone during a deployment overseas or stuck with duty in the barracks. A few organizations are determined to help ensure these single members of our fighting force are not forgotten.
“There are a lot of programs that help out families, and those are wonderful and well needed, but when we are taking a look at our service members, two-thirds of them are under the age of 24,” said Cindy Farnum, founder and executive director of Operation Help a Hero. “Most of those are single. So, when you look at the sheer numbers alone, you can see the need.”
Farnum, a Marine Corps spouse, started her nonprofit to support military units and families through a number of volunteer projects. The Operation Christmas Spirit – Single Service Member Gifts program focuses specifically on holiday season needs.
“At Christmas time, you have a lot of units that are coming in and out from deployment, and they are oftentimes not going home to their families, unless it’s pre-deployment leave,” explained Farnum. “So, you find lots of single service members in the barracks over the holidays, and they also tend to be the service members that get stuck with duty.”
To help, Farnum and volunteers collect donations from across the country — everything from cards and candy to elaborate boxes of presents — and then surprise single service members with gifts at barracks in several locations to make sure they feel the love.
“It’s one of my favorite moments of the season,” said Farnum. “From driving through the gate and getting to hand out something special to walking around, you know, there is an element of surprise, and just the look on their faces when they realize that they have not been forgotten. It’s something that’s just so heartwarming.”
Karen Sparks, board president for Military Missions, Inc., also understands this feeling of fulfillment as a volunteer with the organization’s Adopt a Hero program, created 10 years ago as a more personalized way for supporters to feel connected to the troops. The project, sending donated packages overseas to service members away from friends and family, takes place each year as part of Operation S.E.N.D. Christmas.
Donors visit the Military Missions website and select a name from the Hero List. Then they online shop (suggestions are provided) to create a special Christmas care package. If donors don’t have the time to shop but still wants to participate, they can donate a preset amount that covers the cost of the items and the shipping. Sparks and her team of volunteers then gather all the items, create the packages, and send them to the adopted heroes with a card that lets the hero know it was created especially for them by the donor.
“Over the years we have received so many thank you notes from our care package recipients,” Sparks said. “They express their gratitude for someone who doesn’t even know them. These notes are truly heartwarming but sometimes also heartbreaking as we often hear that our box was the only package they received during deployment. You just cannot imagine how much one small care package can mean to someone.”
How to help
Operation Help a Hero accepts donations from all over the U.S. Donors can sign up for just one gift or a much larger collection from a corporate sponsor.
If someone is interested in assisting with gift distribution at a base or starting a program in an area not on the list of hub locations, they are encouraged to email Wendy Ruiz, the single service member gift coordinator, at WRuiz@OperationHelpAHero.org.
Military Missions, Inc. needs names of deployed troops to send packages to. If you have a friend or loved one who is deployed, submit a care package request at https://militarymissions.org/services/add-a-hero/ or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Donations can be either monetary or products to fill the care packages. Board President Karen Sparks says that since COVID began, donations have dropped dramatically, forcing the organization to purchase items that are normally donated. She notes that monetary donations also cover the cost to ship the packages overseas. Visit https://militarymissions.org/adoptahero/ for additional information.