With 500 overseas, Operation Holiday Cheer a heavy lift

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This year’s Operation Holiday Cheer is going to be a heavy lift. In past years Rhode Islanders have generously stepped forward with donations and their time to send between 250 to 300 care packages to servicemen and -women who will be away for the holiday season. This year the goal is to fill 500 packages.

Pushing the number are the 250 members of the Rhode Island National Guard who are presently in Texas in a mobilization phase for deployment to Kuwait within the first two weeks of December, Major General Christopher P. Callahan of the Rhode Island National Guard explained Tuesday.

Callahan spoke at the kickoff of the annual program, traditionally run by the lieutenant governor and made possible with corporate support, individual donations and volunteers, many of who are Blue Star and Gold Star Mothers, who pack the boxes delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. He said an additional 100 members of the National Guard are currently deployed to either South Korea or Guantanamo Bay. The remaining 150 are Rhode Islanders on active military service that will be away from home.

“Operation Holiday Cheer brings our community together in a way that is difficult to describe until you have seen it firsthand,” said Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee to kick off the effort at the National Guard armory on Airport Road. McKee is confident the additional packages will be filled and mailed even if it’s going to be a stretch.

A big portion of the expense of the program, about $12,000, is the postage. McKee said donations have covered those costs and he is hopeful they will again this year.

So far, monetary donations have totaled $14,250, with more expected to be collected during the Operation Holiday Cheer weekend in November. However, in the event there’s a shortfall, the program has reserves in an account managed by the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Red Cross.

“The Red Cross will keep us out of the red,” he joked.

Joining McKee for the kickoff was Mayor Scott Avedisian and representatives from many of the sponsors, including PawSox mascots that added levity to the announcement as they mingled with the crowd.

A feature that recipients love is the uniquely Rhode Island items such as Aristocrat Coffee Syrup, Del’s, Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and local publications that are sent along with toiletries and other gifts. Letters and drawings from elementary school students are likewise among items sent.

Sgt. Ian Fink recalled receiving a package while deployed, observing he enjoyed introducing his fellow soldiers to the uniquely Rhode Island items he received. Sgt. Casey Dextradeur also shared his experience as a package recipient, saying that it really meant a lot to him to know that people back home were thinking of him during the holiday season.

This year, donations of goods from the public will be accepted and sorted at the National Guard Armory at 541 Airport Road in Warwick on Saturday, Nov. 18 from 8:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. Volunteers will assemble packages on Sunday, Nov. 19 from 8:30 a.m. to 12 p.m., also at the Armory. To see the troops’ wish list, make a monetary donation or volunteer, visit www.ltgov.ri.gov/ohc.

Operation Holiday Cheer is organized by the Office of the Lieutenant Governor, in partnership with the Rhode Island National Guard’s Family Assistance Center, the Office of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Postal Service Providence Branch and the Rhode Island chapter of the American Red Cross.

The program relies entirely on the generosity of individuals and corporate and community sponsors. Among this year’s supporters are AAA Southern New England, AlphaGraphics, the American Red Cross, Amica Mutual Insurance Company, BankNewport, Banneker Industries, Bank of America, Blue Star Moms, City of Warwick, CVS Health, Del’s Lemonade, Dunkin’ Donuts, Finlay Extracts & Ingredients, General Dynamics Electric Boat, Girl Scouts of Southeastern New England, Gold Star Moms, Hasbro, The Home Depot, Local 57 Operating Engineers, National Grid, Navigant Credit Union, The New England Patriots, Ocean State Job Lot, Stop & Shop, The Pawtucket Red Sox, Pilgrim Title Insurance Co., The Providence Journal, Rhode Island Resource Recovery, The U.S. Postal Service Providence Branch and Walmart.

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