Over the weekend, nearly 600 volunteers worked diligently in the (UMMS), where they transformed its cafeteria into a stocking-stuffing operation that would make Santa’s workshop proud.
But, instead of just small toys or hot chocolate going into the Christmas stockings, the volunteers made it a point to include Clean-Lubricate-Preserve (CLP) gun-wipes and bore snake rifle cleaners.
“We’re not a care-package organization,” Patty Lewis, founder and president of America 4R Marines, said. “This is our end-of-the-year ‘Oorah.’”
For the last six years, the Willow Grove-based nonprofit has held its “Operation Merry Christmas Marines and Sailors,” event, which took place from the evening of Dec. 9 to the late afternoon of Dec. 11.
The annual event sends over 5,500 Christmas stockings to Marines stationed in Afghanistan and elsewhere overseas, stuffed with home-comforts and military-related amenities.
“We work with the commanders and get what they would use,” Lewis said.
Although Lewis adds that the United States Marine Corps (USMC) has a policy against directly requesting specific donations, through conversations with top USMC personnel, Lewis’ organization has been able to identify amenities that Marines stationed in long-distance outposts would find difficult accessing.
According to Lewis, “Operation Merry Christmas Marines and Sailors” is the signature event of America 4R Marines. She said it was started after speaking with her son, who was then a Marine in his third deployment in Iraq.
Stocking Stuffing on a Grand Scale
That first year, in 2006, saw 1,200 stockings go overseas. The following year, 4,000 stockings were shipped. And, every year after, America 4R Marines has sent along an average of more than 5,000 stockings.
The storage for the stocking stuffing event have also grown, from Lewis’ home to a donated storage space in the warehouse of Willow Grove’s .
According to the Willow Grove Post Office postmaster Tim Agger, this year’s 5,530 stockings filled three, 18-wheeled United States Post Office trailer trucks. Working over the weekend at UMMS, Agger helped lead a team of postal workers to prepare the large boxes of stuffed stockings that will go straight to a port in New York for shipping.
In all, the entire cargo weighs over 15 tons.
According to Lewis, once in Afghanistan and other military sites overseas, the stockings will be delivered via helicopter to the various long-distance outposts within a week.
Beforehand, over 600 volunteers worked in an assembly line to stuff the stockings for eight hours on both Saturday and Sunday.
“We care about the impact we can have on people,” Cindy of USA Cheerleaders, said.
USA Cheerleaders, whose professional cheerleaders support military-related outreach events throughout the country and abroad, were one of scores of both national and local organizations, as well as the hundreds of individual locals, to volunteer their time over the weekend.
One such local organization, United Young Marines of Horsham, has supported “Operation Merry Christmas Marines and Sailors,” since the beginning.
“All of our young Marines are here volunteering,” Guy Vogel, the organization’s executive officer said. “We feel it is important to give back.”
A subsidiary of the Marine Corps. League, whose members also volunteered at the event, the United Young Marines is a nonprofit organization dedicated to positive youth guidance in the traditions and values of the Marines.
According to Vogel, as part of that guidance, the organization’s youth (ages 8 -18), frequently volunteer for community service.
Every year, the organization’s 20-plus youth and alumni volunteers have made a strong presence at the event. In the hours before the start of the event, United Young Marines members are responsible for preparing the various item-stations for the assembly-line.
“I like to volunteer here, because it shows that we youth can follow the path of the Marine and keep it going from generation to generation,” Lance Cpl. Shannon Dormen, 15, of Huntingdon Valley, said.
During the event, volunteers were treated to a festive, holiday atmosphere, complete with decorations, holiday music and a visit from Santa. Lunch was also provided to volunteers, courtesy of local businesses, including Randazzo’s Pizza in Upper Dublin.
By 4 p.m. on Sunday, just before the last stocking had successfully made it through the assembly line, Lewis reflected on the event’s large undertaking.
“When parents call me and say that their son received the stockings, I smile because it was worth every bit of the six months it took to do this,” Lewis said. “It’s the best Christmas gift I could ever have.”