by Tammy Sakry
Although it was Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day was on the mind of the volunteers packing boxes for service members in the Middle East.
When they pack boxes, they pack items for the next holiday as it takes about a month for the packages to reach their destination, said Denise Jorgensen, founder of Operation Minnesota Nice.
This time the 23 boxes contain Beanie Babies, candy and other goodies were packed at the Anoka American Legion Feb. 14.
More than 130,000 service members in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait have received 600,000 pounds of goodies from the group since 2005.
It all started in 2004 with a single mother with a son stationed in Iraq.
While helping send Ben, who was in the Army, packages, one of his comments got Jorgensen thinking.
She had sent him a paper towel shipping box full of goodies and he was thrilled with it because he had enough that he could share with others who did not receive packages from home, she said.
“I started thinking about those not getting packages and letters from home,” Jorgensen said.
“Approximately a third of the soldiers deployed receive nothing from home. We just assume they have everything they need.”
Jorgensen asked Ben to supply the names of soldiers that never received packages and recruited her family members to collect and pack items to ship to the soldiers.
Word of mouth brought in more volunteers from churches and co-workers.
But Jorgensen discovered not all the volunteers could afford to pack a lot for the soldiers.
It was evident when they got together to fill out the shipping forms who was on a more fixed income. So they decided to combine efforts.
“We all buy 10 of one thing and dole them out among all the boxes,” Jorgensen said.
They started with nine people packing boxes for 17 soldiers.
But more volunteers and soldier names arrived and soon the group had outgrown Jorgensen’s Ramsey garage.
In April 2005, they moved to the Elk River Legion and the Anoka Legion.
The group has continued to grow and now has volunteers in Bemidji, Duluth, Rochester and Mankato.
“I want to make sure they will never go without mail again,” Jorgensen said.
Soldiers receiving Operation Minnesota Nice packages are referred by a fellow service member and do not know that their name was submitted until the first box arrives.
“It feels great to get mail, especially from someone you don’t know, knowing they took the time to send a package for you, for the sacrifices you have made,” said Army SFC Brian Thole, who is stationed in Kuwait, by e-mail.
Some of the soldiers felt that because they were not from Minnesota they thought they should not get packages from the group, Thole said.
“I told them that is not what it is about and all soldiers are part of it, they were absolutely elated,” he said. “They thought it was awesome.”
Thole got the group in contact with soldiers during his first deployment in 2009 at the suggestion of Jorgensen’s brother, who worked with Thole at the Minneapolis Police Department.
He continued the efforts when he was redeployed.
“I have heard so many comments from soldiers about the stuff they get and the stories from the little old ladies and the funny and cute things they say,” said Thole, who is part of a 130-member unit.
“Operation Minnesota Nice has brought many smiles and much happiness to hundreds of soldiers in my two deployments and I can’t thank everyone involved enough, especially Denise Jorgensen,” he said.
“She is an amazing woman and what she has created has touched many soldiers.”
What is in the boxes depends on where the soldier is stationed.
If the soldiers are stationed in Kuwait, the amenities are a little better than Afghanistan, where packages and supplies are still airlifted in and they may not have access to a microwave or refrigerator, Jorgensen said.
Temperature also plays a role in what goodies are packed.
Jolly Ranchers hard candy melt in the high temperatures, Jorgensen said.
Bar soap and Lifesavers are also out because they smell up the box, she said.
For Marines, the rules are more stringent on what they can receive, like only black socks, Jorgensen said.
But those rules don’t keep the volunteers from sending a little fun.
For Christmas, the Marines got Santa Mr. Potato Heads, Jorgensen said.
To help soldiers celebrate the Super Bowl, Jorgenson made football-shaped Rice Krispy treats with cocoa crispies, sent Nerf footballs and beer nuts.
Some boxes have a theme, from the state fair with everything on a stick, to the fishing opener with gummy worms and fish crackers.
The volunteers also receive requests.
One group of soldiers requested Silly Putty. “We aren’t sure what they were using it for,” Jorgensen said.
Another requested item is silverware because they get so tired of eating off of plastic utensils, she said.
They also want sheets and pillows, items not issued with their sleeping bags, said Jorgensen, who personally send packages to four soldiers.
Of course, they may be surprised on what type of sheets they get. They ranged from superhero themes to My Little Pony.
“Home baked goods are always delicious,” said Thole.
While the soldiers do not always have time or the means to respond to the volunteers, they do want something that tells them a little about the sender, Thole said.
About 40 percent of the soldiers respond to the packages, Jorgensen said.
Always room for more
Although some troops are being withdrawn, Operation Minnesota Nice’s mission continues.
The group is more focused on the soldiers in Afghanistan, Jorgensen said.
Jorgensen recently received the names of 171 soldiers who need to matched with volunteers.
Volunteers are encouraged to visit Operation Minnesota Nice’s website, http://www.operationminnesotanice.com/.
“It it makes a difference to know a group of volunteers is out there rooting for them,” Jorgensen said.