By Sgt. Christopher Dennis
A sweet surprise greeted single soldiers and airmen residing on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER), Alaska, this week as 2,752 holiday bags were delivered to their barracks doors by volunteers. The USO and Elmendorf Richardson Spouses’ Club (ERSC) spent days working around-the-clock to ensure gift bags coupled with cookies were delivered to the soldiers before they took off for holiday leave.
“I was expecting to see one of my sergeants when I heard the knock, but it was a nice surprise to see a gift for us instead,” Pvt. Lane Vandall said.
Volunteers from across the base pitched in to provide a little holiday cheer for service members who may not have the chance to see loved ones this month for the holidays.
“Usually, the USO cooks a full dinner on Thanksgiving and Christmas for the service member and their families, but this year we couldn’t do that, so the USO JBER staff decided to give a ‘gift’ to every single service member in the dorms and barracks,” USO Center Operations Supervisor Barbara Knaak said.
“We contacted community and corporate partners; we held a ‘Stuff the Truck’ event in November to get the local community involved. We had hundreds of volunteers come out when they heard that we were working to give a holiday bag to all the single service members living in the dorms and barracks. And of course, our USO volunteers and staff were there every step of the way pitching in.”
The USO Alaska team united with ERSC’s annual “Cookie Caper” event to add over a dozen baked cookies to each bag, a win-win situation for both organizations according to ERSC senior advisor Casey Andrysiak.
“I think it’s awesome to be able to give the soldiers something for the holidays and, through the USO – who has done an amazing job since I’ve been in the military – we are able to show them that we care about them,” Master Sgt. Ella Nunley-Spaights said.
The production was a huge success.
“Over 36,000 cookies were more than we could bake, but local supporters, including the America Legion Post 1, Alaska Airlines, Midnight Sun Service Dogs, Association of the United States Army and many, many others stepped up to pitch in and pack these bags full with a little holiday cheer,” Andrysiak said.
USO Center Operations Supervisor Jeanie Butler was also amazed by how many donations came from businesses, all coming together to help with the effort.
“Aurora Military Housing donated pens; Starbucks gave us coffee, snacks and a variety of cups. USAA donated runner bags, key chains, jotters and hand sanitizers; Safeway donated 4,000 grocery bags for packaging. Odom donated Reign Energy drinks; Tito’s vodka sent four pallets of full-sized hand sanitizer. The Yellow Ribbon Girls put together gifts and notes; and we had over a hundred handmade beanies donated by Randy Grove from York, Pennsylvania,” Butler said. “We were also able to purchase hot chocolate, hand warmers, candy canes, lips balms and holiday cards thanks to our USO donors.”
The teamwork shown by of all these teams, volunteers and donors coming together on behalf of service members in need made the event what it was.
“Partnering with the USO to make Cookie Caper bigger meant each service member received over 20 items,” ERSC Vice President of Administrative Operations Carey Crance said. “Of course, the cookies are the little touch of home.”
Not only did everyone in the barracks receive their cookies, new service members in-processing and those restricted from movement due to COVID-19 also got some goodies.
“I think it’s a good treat, I wanted to bake cookies, but we don’t have an oven so it’s a good treat and I don’t have to bake cookies this year,” Pvt. Carrin Rodriguez said.
The generosity of community supporters and national partners, as well as the commitment of volunteers to meet the aggressive delivery timeline, catapulted the “Cookie Caper” to the next level, ensuring that even when far from home and their families, service members still got to celebrate the holiday season.
-This article was originally published on DVIDSHub.net. It has been edited for USO.org.
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