'Least we can do' ends up being tons of gifts for military away from home

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Lt. Gov. Dan McKee says there’s more to Operation Holiday Cheer than providing gifts from home to servicemen and -women who can’t get back to the Ocean State for the holidays.

In an effort involving scores of sponsors, organizations and more than 300 volunteers, about 550 gift boxes containing toiletries, a Christmas stocking stuffed with candy, playing cards, edible treats, local newspapers and personal notes were packed over Saturday and Sunday at the Rhode Island National Guard Armory on Airport Road.

Thanks to the planning skills of Kevin McDonnell, who has earned the designation of logistics manager, Saturday is devoted to donations as people dropped off bags and truckloads of items to go into the gift boxes. Cars were backed up to Airport Road. Volunteers sorted donations while crews assembled boxes donated by Home Depot, kids and adults wrote notes and in a separate room, Blue Star Mothers flanked a table with a mountain of candy, the fillings for Christmas stockings.

On Sunday the operation moved into second gear with volunteers moving down the line with boxes as another set of volunteers dropped items in each box before arriving at the final station where they are taped and addressed. Each of the boxes weighs from 35 to 40 pounds, putting the output of gifts at 19,250 pounds, or 9.6 tons. The next stop for the boxes was the Providence Post Office where they will be individually weighted and sorted before being shipped to destinations in this country and throughout the world this week.

The cost of mailing is covered through financial contributions and managed by the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Red Cross. Red Cross personnel and volunteers likewise played a big role in the overall effort. Members of the Patriot Guard Riders and the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association see to it that cartons filled with the addressed boxes are loaded into a Postal Service trailer and then offloaded when they get to Providence.

But as much as the gifts are a reminder from home, McKee said the effort is a manifestation of the value Rhode Islanders place on those serving in the military.

Adrienne Mancini and her husband Jerry, of Providence, have been volunteering for the past 10 years, and while they have no direct connection to the military, those serving this country come to mind at this time of year.

“They’re there by themselves,” said Adrienne. “It’s incredible they’re doing so much for us. This is the least we can do.”

For Joann Kane, who works for the U.S. Postal Service, Sunday was her first experience volunteering for Operation Holiday Cheer. She was accompanied by her daughter, Allison, a student at Johnston High School. She was impressed by the organization and the outpouring of donations.

Major General Christopher P. Callahan has seen the numbers, both in the quantity of donations and volunteers, grow since the program was initiated 15 years ago. While the program caught the public’s attention and was given a lot of coverage with National Guard deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, Callahan said the program has always been able to fulfill the need. He said 110 members of the National Guard are deployed in Cuba with another 30 in South Korea. He said another 270 would be leaving for Southwest Asia in early December.

In addition, the program has been extended to other branches of military service. This year an estimated 500 Rhode Islanders will be serving outside the state over the holidays. That’s up by more than 100 from last year.

Nonetheless, Operation Holiday Cheer surpassed its goal of 500 boxes. The extra boxes will be shipped as well, going to others who will be introduced to some uniquely Rhode Island flavors like Autocrat Coffee Syrup and Del’s Lemonade.

That was fine with Chris Royal of Warwick, who is a material handler. She drives a forklift at Banneker. On Sunday she was breaking open cartons of canned nuts that were dropped in each box passing her station.

“It’s the very least I can do. I wish there was more,” she said.

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