|By Lori O'Brien|
CHICOPEE Al Kendall's living room looks like a mini warehouse these days as personal care and non-perishable items arrive weekly from generous area residents and local businesses and organizations.
Kendall is executive director and founder of Operation Sharing Hearts, a local organization that coordinates efforts to collect personal care items and funds for shipments, that supports American troops serving primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Kendall noted that although the organization originates in Chicopee and is coordinated here, it is region-wide and open to participation by all who wish to contribute time, effort and resources, for as long as the current international situation requires.
On a recent weekday evening, Kendall and Jeanne Olsen, director of publicity for Operation Sharing Hearts, shared their thoughts with Reminder Publications about the generosity of others they see every day.
Kendall said that the organization has made it easier for anyone who wishes to collect and send "comfort" materials to American troops.
"Operation Sharing Hearts is a bond between an appreciative public and the servicemen and women and their families who sacrifice in a special way their own lives and careers and personal happiness to assure, as generations of veterans honorably served in the past, a world of freedom, justice and peace," said Kendall.
"Hearts and hands are united in a special way to show support on each side of the efforts and contributions thus made," added Olsen. "Happiness exists in the careful and enthusiastic packing of the cartons and the joyous and holiday warming spirit when the packages are received and opened."
Operation Sharing Hearts is open to anyone to participate as an active and involved member that includes providing ongoing support, solicitation and provision of materials and funds, according to Kendall.
"The assistance of both individuals and companies is gratefully appreciated and encouraged," he said, adding "anyone who can provide the essential corporate involvement, or obtain it, is encouraged to make that help available to our effort. Our common purpose is to bring our troops a comforting interlude in their challenging service to our country as it pursues efforts to restore peace and deal with terrorism."
Both Kendall and Olsen said that it is a sad fact that after all the work and expense by individuals and groups with good intentions to send packages, many are not deliverable and are returned to warehouses to be stored and ultimately destroyed.
"Good communication assures that the happiness we want to send to our troops actually reaches them," said Kendall, noting there are strict military postal regulations that must be followed to ensure packages arrive at their destination.
Currently in Kendall's living room, there is a wall full of personal care items for men and women, as well as personal gift items ranging from journals, pens and writing paper to stuffed animals. One local church group also recently donated non-toxic herbal sachets which are always in demand.
"Herbal sachets are put in clothing and bedding to drive away many of the bugs and creepy crawlers in the desert sand," said Kendall. "Not only is it an example of what can be done by anyone but also it is an example of how we can help reduce the misery of our troops in the desert and mountain environments where they serve."
Olsen added that donations and creative efforts of the donors can take many forms. While cards and letters are welcome, she said, they take up space and increase expenses. An alternative is a 8" x 11" placemat which can carry many brief handwritten messages and can be put up on boards for troops to see and read.
"In that way, many messages can be sent, including creative decorations, by anyone in any situation," said Olsen. "Everyone can support our troops."
Durable snack items which can take the extreme heat and cold, can survive the rough handling of shipping and flights, and personal care items of all kinds are always welcome, added Kendall.
"Often our men and women are assigned far from even basic 'stores' which we take for granted," he said.
"Organizations of all kinds are welcome to join in our efforts and fit packages for our troops into their community and public service work," said Kendall, noting that the ROTC and Key Club at Chicopee High School have also been a godsend by working on this project at the school.
Kendall reiterated that he is grateful for all the help and encouragement he has received since founding the organization.
"This is important and it is necessary," he said, noting that one of his goals is to ship at least 1,000 cartons next year to troops in war-torn areas. Each universal box costs approximately $12-$14 to mail.
Kendall also has forms available where area residents can provide information to him on servicemen and women who will be sent packages. Once Kendall makes contact with the servicemen or women, packages are sent and a receipt is acknowledged.
Anyone wishing to add a little comfort for a soldier is welcome to join the ranks with Kendall and Operation Sharing Hearts members at any time. Companies, individual donors and area residents interested in more information or volunteering efforts can contact Kendall via e-mail at email@example.com or call 592-7812.
Individuals, businesses or organizations wishing to make a monetary donation to Operation Sharing Hearts can send contributions to the Aldenville Credit Union, 710 Grattan St., Chicopee, MA 01020, Attn: Gary Szymaniak, Treasurer, Operation Sharing Hearts.