story: Fred Hilton photo: Fred Lopez
Operation Shoebox supports the needs of troops serving abroad and returning home.
They sacrifice their time, their families and in some cases, their lives. They suffer through daily assaults of missiles, bullets, and grenades. And the emotional and physical wounds they bear sometimes never heal.
No wonder many people are so enthusiastic about supporting American soldiers.
That’s precisely what numerous Villages residents do as volunteers of Operation Shoebox. Each Monday, they gather at Lake Miona Recreation Center and spend five hours in an assembly line crocheting hats, writing letters, and stuffing bags with food, games, and hygiene products. The care packages are then shipped to troops in Afghanistan, as well as those stationed at military bases overseas.
“Everyone who is part of this organization looks forward to Monday,” says Sandy DeChristofaro, who serves as director and vice-president of Operation Shoebox. “We work together so well because this is such a wonderful cause. It is a tiring yet rewarding day for us all.”
Mary Harper, a resident of Belleview, started Operation Shoebox in 2003 when her four sons, daughter, and son-in-law were all deployed to Iraq. In an effort to ease her anxiety and boost troop morale, she began spending countless hours in her living room preparing basic care packages for men and women stationed around the world. Soon, her project blossomed into a nonprofit organization.
Operation Shoebox received an influx of manpower when Villages residents launched a chapter in 2004 to assist Mary with her good deeds. Today, between 400 and 600 volunteers show up each Monday to package items such as shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes, dental wash, coffee, tea, cookies, chips, cards, and letters of encouragement. Each care package also contains a crocheted hat with the inscription, “May this angel watch over you.”
To say the packages are appreciated by troops would be an understatement. “Throughout the years, recipients have come here to personally thank us,” Sandy says. “We give them a standing ovation. And the walls in the Belleview office are covered with thank-you letters from troops, as well as senators and representatives. We can no longer hang them because we ran out of wall space.”
In November 2013, Operation Shoebox reached a milestone when volunteers officially shipped the one-millionth package overseas. Weeks later, the lucky recipient sent a picture of himself holding a sign that read, “I received the millionth package!”
While individuals and other organizations donate small items, Operation Shoebox does accrue hefty postage expenses. In 2013, the organization spent $268,000 to mail the care packages overseas. Numerous fundraisers are held throughout the year to help offset the costs.
For more information, please visit operationshoebox.com