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Chock full of holiday cheer

Posted: November 29, 2008 9:43 p.m.
Updated: November 30, 2008 4:59 a.m.

Left to right: Pete and Debbie Mahoney and Joe Avignone assemble care packages Saturday at the Santa Clarita Community Center. Local residents helped pack 450 boxes, which will be shipped out this week to American servicemen and women deployed around the world.

Just in time for the holidays, a U.S. soldier overseas will soon open a small greeting card that reads, "Dear Friend: Merry Christmas. Thanks for saving the U.S.A.," written in a child's crooked penmanship.

Come Monday morning, 450 boxes filled with such childrens' hand-made holiday cards and items such as socks, dental floss and instant soup will be on their way to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan from the Santa Clarita Valley.

About 50 community volunteers stuffed and packaged those boxes on Saturday morning in the Newhall Community Center gym.

"I have no one connected to me in the military, but it's been a burden on me for a long time to support and encourage (the troops)," said volunteer Michele Avignon of Valencia. "This is a wonderful way to participate."

The annual "Operation Thank Our Troops" packaging event was hosted by Prayer Angels, a group composed of local Blue Star Mothers and community members dedicated to supporting troops on the front lines as well as wounded warriors, said Suzon Gerstel, the organization's president and mother of a Marine.

West Ranch High student and Castaic resident Lindsy Miles, 15, said she hadn't really thought about supporting the troops until she volunteered for the event to gain community service hours for a school club.

"It was fun to write letters and specialize things and think about them going out there (to the troops) besides thinking about our own lives," she said.

Volunteer Debbie Mahoney of Castaic feels efforts like this operation are important so "it's not just a 9-11 thing where people swarmed around to help during that specific time but then forgot."

In spite of a tanking economy, there are frugal ways the community can help the troops, Gerstel and volunteers said.

"If you see something on sale after Christmas pick it up, or go to the dollar store and pick up a couple items," Avignon said. "Or, it can be a great project for kids doing community service or for the Boy and Girl Scouts."

As the mother of a Marine, Gerstel said she knows how much it means to the troops to receive even a simple card or letter from someone who cares.

"My son has his own chest of letters he keeps," she said.

Each package is also stuffed with a prayer card printed with the Psalm 91 Scriptures from the Bible.

"The (prayer cards) are nice if they need something to hang on to or carry in their helmet or pocket," Gerstel said.

The packaging event was meant to last from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but by noon, Gerstel said the volunteers had "zip-zapped and got it done."

The early finish was a combination of helpful volunteers and not having enough donated materials to fill more boxes, she said.

If the organization can pull in enough materials in the next couple weeks, it will arrange another packaging day.

Donations boxes can also be found at most local grocery stores, Gerstel said.

Prayer Angels for the Military is a 501(c)3 corporation and donations are tax-deductible.


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