Husband and wife team Pete Morin and Sue Shea started a nonpolitical "for the kids/for the troops" effort that has slowly found its own voice.
"We often hear from people that they have wanted to give in some way for some time, but didn't know how to go about it," said Shea during an interview with Reminder Publications at Sage Books in Southampton. "We are pleased to offer this simple, heartfelt way for people to get involved."
The base of the operation is conducted out of Sage Books at 220 College Highway, a used book store owned by Morin.
"Small efforts can really add up," said Shea. "Through the outpouring of community donations, we have so far shipped 50 boxes, totaling more than 1,400 pounds of donations, and we can't wait until we reach our first ton."
Their campaign is titled Beanies for Balad and encourages local residents to make donations of small toys that can be put in the pockets of our troops to give to youngsters in Iraq. Donation suggestions for children include beanie babies and small plush animals, matchbox-type cars and wrapped hard candies and gum. For the troops, new chapsticks and birthday and anniversary cards to send home to loved ones are always in need.
Shea explained that Pete has a longtime friend who had been stationed in Iraq at Balad Air Force Base as a chaplain.
"When we asked him what he needed, he told us Balad AFB was out of beanie babies," said Shea. "That's when we first learned that our troops there hand them out to the Iraqi kids."
Shea said they were told that family members had been sending the troops these toys but supplies were low.
"Our military stuffs their pockets with these, handing it out to kids when on patrol, and taking them to schools and hospitals," she said, adding, "kids line up when they see them being handed out."
Shea said that in addition to the donations for children, they added two items for the troops themselves to fill a need not being fully met chapstick and birthday/anniversary cards to send home to loved ones.
When their friend at Balad AFB rotated home in January, Morin and Shea partnered up with a similar organization, Beanies for Baghdad, and are now sending their boxes to an operating base in Kirkuk.
"They have an even wider distribution and staff to receive boxes from both organizations like ours and individual mailings," said Shea.
Volunteer "beanie captains" are always being sought by Morin and Shea to help with the collection process. Beanie captains arrange to set up collection boxes and bring the donations to Sage Books. A potential drop box location could be a person's workplace, a community gathering place, a string of stores and businesses, or a school. Once donations are brought to Sage Books, Shea and Morin sort the items, package them for safe delivery to Iraq, and pay for the postage to mail the boxes out.
"Although we don't actively solicit cash donations to defray postage, friends of this program have donated postage ($1 postage stamps works well) or cash to help with postage which has helped us ship three boxes per week, rather than the one box we had planned," said Shea.
Sage Books also provides all printing needs for the beanie captains, including color posters and handouts. Printing help would be welcome, added Shea.
Sydney Snyder of Granby was the first volunteer beanie captain to sign up.
"Pete and Sue are wonderfully giving people," said Snyder. "When I learned of their efforts, I presented Beanies for Balad to the Missions and Social Action Committee at First Church in Ludlow. The response has been overwhelming. From there I began to seek out additional collection locations."
Snyder said it breaks her heart when she watches the news coming out of Iraq.
"In some small way, I hope Beanies for Balad brings some joy to our troops and comfort to the children of Iraq," added Snyder. "If we are going to bridge the gap between ourselves and other cultures and peoples of the world, we have to reach out to them, and there is no better place to start than with the children. These little toys offer our troops an opportunity to bring comfort to the innocents of this conflict."
"Because these are Muslim children, we screen out Christmas, Easter and Hanukkah items and redonate them to local charities," said Shea. "We also screen out any beanies that might light up or make noise for our soldiers' safety."
Shea noted that although the military group they ship to receives nearly 5,000 pounds each week of these items, "the cupboard would be bare within two weeks if the donations stopped."
"Our troops like to do these handouts for the kids who often have very little, and it always brings smiles all around," she added. "Sending items for the troops themselves also reiterates that we care about them and understand the hardships they are encountering."
Public drop boxes are currently located at Sage Books, as well as the Edwards Library and Bashista's Orchards, all in Southampton; Granby Library & Town Hall, Polish National Credit Union, Five Corner Cuts, West Street School, East Meadow School and the Junior/Senior High School, all in Granby; the First Church in Ludlow; Healthy Alternatives in Belchertown, and the Huntington Library and Trolley Shop, both in Huntington.
For persons interested in becoming involved in Beanies for Balad or wish to make a donation, contact Shea or Morin at (413) 527-7703 or via e-mail at email@example.com. For the latest information on the campaign, visit www.sagebks.com/home/beaniesforbalad.htm.
"We've allowed this campaign to find its own voice and it continues to resonate," said Shea. "We're pleased to offer this direct pipeline, and hope donations of the requested items will continue to come in. We are thankful to be living among such giving people, and welcome any individual, school, business or club who wishes to help fill the box."