It's funny how your kids get you into so many different situations. It's been said that having children changes your life. And any mom would agree with you. I just didn't expect a decision that my son made would veer me off in a direction such as this.
What started as a simple request from my Marine son, Gil, to send his girlfriend a box of Christmas presents grew into something I never would have imagined, nor felt qualified to do. Yet in 8 years, Full Circle Home has sent out gifts to bases around the world and to every state in the nation.
By the numbers:
15,000 boxes, 124,000 individual gifts, 394,000 pieces of chocolate or 1,230 pounds of chocolate, 5 miles of ribbon, 20,000 volunteer wrapping hours, 5 different donated warehouse spaces, 2 military moms, 30,000 troops and heroes at home celebrating holidays apart.
But the numbers don't tell the story, They might describe what we have physically done, or used, or participated in. But they are not the story. It's the soldier who left to join his unit a few days after his twin newborns' open heart surgeries, or the soldier who's 18 year old daughter stepped up to take care of her 2 younger sisters while her single mom was deployed, or the mom that came home from her chemo treatment to find a box of gifts and a love note from her deployed son. Those are the stories of Full Circle Home. They are all so different yet they all ring with a similar tone - that of strength and commitment and tenacity... and love. Some of the stories are told to us by the troops when they sign up. They tell us how hard their wife works juggling kids, work, volunteering, ill parents, oh, and making sure she sends out care packages and pictures to them while they are overseas. Yup, they acknowledge that she pretty much wears a cape! Sometimes they send along a photo so we know who we're sending the gifts to - not unlike what we try to do with out sponsors: Make It Real. Oh, it's real. In 8 years, we've never stopped tearing up ourselves!
After the gifts reach the women, we always get phone calls, emails, handwritten notes and Facebook posts. We rush to our mailbox every day after the boxes are mailed to see if we got any letters! You see, we never, or almost never, are able to see them get the boxes! Oh we would love to be a little fly on the wall. Because we KNOW how we would react, and from the letters we get back, I think many respond the same... in tears. And that's how we came to have tissues in a purse size holder in the gift box. Everyone said "As soon as I saw my son's handwriting I started to cry!"
A big difference, however, is how they go about opening the gifts! For some it's a blur of ribbon and shred and wrap as they open all 12 Christmas gifts in the Post Office parking lot! Others open them one day at a time with their service member on Skype. Some share the gifts with their teen age daughters, or with their daughter-in-law. Others say they felt like a little kid - spoiled and fussed over as they opened 12 days of gifts. Some post each day they open a gift on Facebook and share with the world. Others can barely speak as they savor the connection that each gift holds.
For us, even the connections to the troops vary from year to year. We've been able to get in front of units before they deploy and have them sign up right there. That's good because if they don't write a love note we hand it back (bossy moms) and tell them to go write something! Many times they just find us on the internet and it's one and done. We have also gone viral (thanks to a helpful major) and had 700 troops sign up in 3 days. YIKES! Yet, for some, we've made some sort of connection across the internet, and after the holiday, they let us know how much she loved her gifts. We've had some reach out on consecutive deployments and in their request form, they bring us up to date on their families, like we're old friends.
This year, the loss in one of our units has left me unsettled and pained. Many Marines of the 15th MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) signed up for Mother's Day, and subsequently, we offered to take care of more of them for Father's Day. On May 17, they lost 2 men in an Osprey helicopter accident. While neither of those young men had been part of FCH's programs, I feel a particular loss that catches my breath. So I can only imagine the impact on the rest of the 15th MEU. And I see it in their love notes to their Dads. They aren't quick little "love ya, Dad" or less. They are writing a note knowing that it has an importance not just for them but for their Dads. One young Marine sent me 4 edits, each one saying just a little bit more. By the end, I was in tears. I'm sure his dad will be.
I was initially relieved that these 2 Marines weren't "one of ours". That was quickly replaced by a sadness that they were not. My family always says "I love you" when we're leaving. We always want that to be what someone is left with. Maybe the Full Circle Home gifts and love note could have been just that.
So it's just a little box of gifts. But it's so much more. It's a part of the deployed service member. Things are sometimes more apt to be written than said out loud. And now days, who hand writes a note anyway!? On occasion, we get the requests hardcopy in the mail and they're dirty and stained and crumpled. You know that paper has traveled with him through who knows what! Those are our favorites. Or when they press so hard on the pen as they write that you can feel the writing right through the card stock. Those are our favorites. Or the love note that is so long and open hearted that I have to redesign the card. Those are our favorites. When they write a love note or simply sign their name so their mom or wife or dad can see and touch it... those, those our our favorites.
So you can see why we just keep going on. How 2 military moms with their sons now out of the service, volunteer full time (overtime?) and consider themselves lucky and honored to be able to do it.
The story of Vickie and Lisa, however, might also have you in tears ... but laughing! It's been quite a journey!