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Updated: December 6, 2013 6:17AM



The Iraq War wasn’t even a year old when a group of south suburban ladies decided to do what moms and grandmas do best: comfort, nurture and love.

Judy Bernaciak, Barbara McCorry and Jeri Hansen were among 29 women who met while attending water aerobics classes at now-defunct Palos Olympic Health Club. Their friendship soon blossomed into a chapter of the Red Hat Society.

“At first, all we were doing was eating,” said McCorry, of Tinley Park. “We’d get together and just eat.”

After the United States invaded Iraq, the women decided to put their time and energy to better use by collecting and sending boxes of comfort to American soldiers. Bernaciak, who lives in Worth, became the coordinator.

They mailed out their first shipment of donated toiletries, magazines and snacks in January 2004. The following June, they held a garage sale and sold off all of their Red Hat stuff, using the $800 they’d raised as a basis for their new organization, The Twisted Sisters.

Over the years, as combat spread to Afghanistan, The Twisted Sisters’ mission has grown considerably, as has its membership. Now husbands and other friends volunteer one morning a month to organize, pack and mail off goodies.

Don Hansen, of Orland Park, was recruited by his wife. He helps pack, stack and transport boxes to the post office.

“It’s a nice thing to do,” Hansen said. “It makes us feel good.”

In addition to everyday essentials, such as shaving razors and toothpaste — things soldiers can’t find at desert bases — the women bake, package and ship lots of cookies and brownies.

Shirley Heagmey, of Justice, is known as The Cookie Lady. She bakes 14 batches, some of them double batches, for every shipment. The favorite, by far, she said, is chocolate chip, although brownies are never turned away.

Just about all of the names of the soldiers they ship to come to them by word of mouth. A friend tells them about a friend’s son or daughter who is serving. Or members of Sacred Heart Church in Palos Hills, which lends the group space for packing and runs notices about collections in its bulletins, will provide the name of a soldier who would appreciate a box of love from home.

Judy Mack, of Hickory Hills, met Bernaciak at the post office one day.

“I noticed she was shipping to soldiers,” Mack said. The women got to talking and now Mack’s daughter, Heather Mack, a lieutenant colonel stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., supplies the group with names of other female soldiers serving overseas.

“Each box goes to one particular person, but that person then shares with others at the base,” Bernaciak said.

In addition to Sacred Heart, others in the community have helped make the monthly shipments possible. Many Walgreen’s stores donate items. Palos Health and Fitness, where many of the Twisted Sisters now go to work out, lets them run periodic collections to help raise money for mailing, which averages about $800 a month.

It’s not unusual for a member’s doctor or dentist to make a donation. And after a group of women who live in Lemont heard about the monthly drives, they began bringing baked goods regularly, McCorry said.

The group gets feedback, too.

“We get the most beautiful thank you notes,” said Nadine Pankow, of Palos Park.

They also get requests. One chaplain asked for a prayer shawl.

“We found one and sent it,” Bernaciak said.

Another soldier requested Heagmey’s coffee bars many times and then finally asked for the recipe so he could send it to his wife.

If you would like to donate time, talent, supplies or money, contact Judy Bernaciak at (708) 334-9769, or drop off goods at 7447 W. 109th Place, Worth.

Comfort when it’s needed most

Many churches hold a special memorial service on Nov. 2, All Souls Day. We attended the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed mass at Our lady of The Ridge Church in Chicago Ridge. Everyone in attendance had lost a loved one, either during the previous year or in past years.

We went to remember my mother, who died in June 2012.

During the service, candles were lit in memory of those lost. At the end, the priest, the Rev. Wayne Svida, left us with some closing thoughts. He reminded us that our loved ones are in a better place and that one day we will join them.

But then he also remarked that many of those in attendance had come to the service by themselves. He suggested we reach out to those who are lonely, beginning with a group hug in front of the altar. All of us gathered in a circle, hugged and shared words of comfort.

It was a tearful reminder that loneliness, particularly among those who are grieving, is both sad and unacceptable in this age of easy access to modes of communication.

I’m sharing this with you as a reminder to reach out to those family members, friends and loved ones who are suffering alone.

There’s an old saying that friends double the joy in good times and divide the sorrow in bad. So be a friend.

And if you know someone who is struggling to cope with grief and loss, the Rev. Jim Henegan, Pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish, will present Coping with the Holidays from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Nov. 13 at Mary Potter Physician’s Pavilion 2850 W. 95th St., Evergreen Park.

Admission is free. To register call (708) 229-5484.



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