Group celebrates 10 years of helping troops overseas
By Mike Nolan email@example.com August 10, 2013 9:31PM
Debbie Smothers, one of the founders of Operation Care Package, talks with guests Saturday at an annual block party for volunteers and military veterans in Joliet. | Mike Nolan~Sun-Times Media.
Updated: August 12, 2013 3:50PM
It started out small, with Debbie Smothers and her friends Debbie Durawa and Pat Curran— all of whom had family members serving in the military overseas — collecting a few goodies and mailing them to troops based far from home.
A decade later, the organization they helped organize, Operation Care Package, doesn’t see any slowing in the demand for what it ships overseas — more than 150 boxes each week — even as U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are being scaled back.
In fact, names of troops being added to the ever-growing list of military personnel getting care packages is growing as fast as ever, Smothers said.
“People think the war is winding down and there’s less of a need,” Smothers said. “They are closing the PXs and guys don’t have access to anything
To thank volunteers who help collect and package items such as sunscreen, beef jerky, toiletries, DVDs and the color comics from the Sunday paper, Smothers holds a party at her Joliet home.
Celebrating 10 years of helping bring a taste of home to troops overseas, this year’s event was a bit bigger, with tents filling most of the block, and visits from state Rep. Larry Walsh Jr. (D-Joliet) and Sen. Patrick McGuire (D-Crest Hill), both of whom presented to Smothers certificates of appreciation from their respective chambers.
McGuire told Smothers the Senate recognized Operation Care Package for ensuring that “no deployed hero goes without mail and supplies.”
More than 2,000 pounds a week — with a postage bill of $2,500 — gets boxed up and sent out. The job of collecting donations never ends, said Smothers, whose other full-time job is working as a flagger for P.T. Ferro Construction in Joliet.
“It’s nonstop, it’s always nonstop,” she said.
There are big donations — a semi truck filled with skin moisturizer recently arrived — but most of what’s gathered “comes from people doing collections at schools, churches and small businesses,” Smothers said.
The group already is prepping for its big Christmas push, which each year aims to send boxes — along with a handmade Christmas stocking — to 10,000 troops. Boxes will mailed starting the day after Thanksgiving, Smothers said.
“Somehow we’ve always reached our goal,” she said.
For the first two years they operated from Smothers’ home, but since 2005 Operation Care Package has had the free use of space at the Will County Farm Bureau’s offices, although it’s getting a little cramped because demand hasn’t abated, Cindy Eaton, a longtime volunteer said.
She’s been with the nonprofit since shortly after it was established, and several of her family members volunteer, including her four daughters, mom and sister. Volunteers, including members of area American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts, gather each Wednesday to package boxes.
“We couldn’t get by without all our volunteers,” said Eaton, of Lockport. “That’s how we have what we have.”
Debbie Teague has also volunteered with Operation Care Package since the early days. She was a teacher at Joliet’s St. Joseph School, since closed, where students regularly collected items for the packages. Teague has a son and daughter-in-law in the Air Force.
Student collections “lasted the whole (school) year,” she said.
Donna Voight has spent four years volunteering, noting she has several family members who over the years have served in the military. Her daughter, Heather, also volunteers.
“I wanted something to do and this is near and dear to my heart,” the Joliet resident said of what prompted her to join the group.
Voight said that while volunteers are always busy with helping put together care packages, the pace will intensify in a few months.
“After Thanksgiving, we meet six or seven days a week,” she said. “We’ll do maybe 475 boxes a day.”
She said she doesn’t see the need for what Operation Care Package does going away anytime soon.
“As long as there are servicemen and servicewomen who need (what we provide), we will send it,” Voight said.