ST. MARYS – With the completion of the Letters From Home program, volunteers recollected their various experiences with the organization throughout its nine-year history.
On Sunday, Letters From Home held its final letter-stuffing, followed by a retirement ceremony inside the Sacred Heart Parish Center in St. Marys, where the organization has been headquartered since its founding.
"It (LFH) has come a long way. It's bittersweet for us to close. We have touched lives that we had never planned on. The person that sent in that card that didn't think it was that big of a deal, it was a big deal. Those cards mattered. There will definitely be tears here," said Christine Jovenitti, LFH founder and director. "We've made a huge difference in so many people's lives. They have said, 'When your card arrived, I had nobody, just you. I had somebody to hold my hand.' Those people that corresponded nationwide made the difference. They loved the program because it was small and hometown. We would return phone calls, we weren't hard to reach."
Barb Duffy, LFH treasurer and Jovenitti's sister, recalled a group of Mennonite soldiers from Utah who were referred to the organization by their church group. It was explained the soldiers did not have any family or anyone to write to them. LFH took the soldiers under their wings, making sure they had a package sent to them each campaign.
"When we started the program, we had no idea that we would make those folks that happy for what we had actually sent them. It was unbelievable. We cried many times, it was very touching," Duffy said.
Crystal Gornati of Kersey, LFH's senior advisor, was charged with overseeing the completion of care package customs forms and additional logistics duties. She has been involved with the organization since 2004.
"I've really enjoyed all the people that I've met over the years," Gornati said. "It was a nice way to give back without really working that hard at it. It's a lot of work, but it's not tough work."
Bernie Thorwart of St. Marys, who has been with the program for eight years, assisted Gornati with completion of customs forms and was in charge of sending out memorial cards as well.
"I enjoyed working with the people and knowing we were making a difference in the lives of our military, because they're over there for us and want them to know we appreciate them," Thorwart said.
Throughout the years, numerous speciality items have also been collected. Among them were items for military service dogs, 28 homemade quilts and 100 care packages sent to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a military hospital in Germany; various Flat Stanley characters; unbreakable Christmas ornaments; socks; patriotic Necco Sweethearts; and Girl Scout cookies-- Letters From Home received a donation of 15,000 boxes from the Yellow Ribbon Girl Scouts near Pittsburgh in addition to local troop donations.
Letters From Home has also hosted many activities and fundraisers, including a children's boot camp at the Fox Township Community Park, various raffles and a solider auction where women could bid on a date with a local service member.
Soldiers have not only contacted the organization with their thanks, but also with care package requests. At one time, fly strips, mousetraps and flea collars were in high demand to fend off desert insects and critters. Many soldiers wore flea collars as wristbands for protection against fleas and bugs until they were warned the collars may cause a rash.
Female soldiers often requested creams and lotions. Medical supplies were also frequently requested, in part to replenish some of the military personnel's supplies, but also to provide them to local citizens. According to Gornati, LFH utilized a hefty donation of medical supplies, mainly bandages and dressings which were donated by a hospital that was going out of business. This came at an opportune time, as a local soldier had made a request for such items for his ground ambulance unit.
"It was neat as to how all that stuff kind of worked out," Gornati said.
For 15 separate campaigns, the organization sent out medical and school supplies, as soldiers played a large part in establishing schools when they served in Iraq. In addition to school supplies, a large shipment of Beanie Babies was also sent, along with two shopping carts full of children's shoes and small toys which Gornati had purchased at the local Goodwill store.
"We've had to be very careful over the years of what we asked for because it came to us tenfold," Gornati said.
On a local level, several area schools and many community residents pitched in by decorating the paper bags used for the care packages, as well as submitting handwritten postcards and letters.
Volunteers recollected their enthusiasm about reviewing letters and postcards they received from throughout the country. Among those standout submissions were letters from students at a school for the blind and deaf, as well as those from Fran Fuller, a Georgia woman who sent a large box of handwritten notes for each campaign. Each year, a large donation of postcards was received from the National Cherry Blossom Festival.
Over the years, LFH requested people send postcards to the program, which in turn were sent to a solider, from places they visited while on vacation. Postcards were received from all 50 states, with the most coming from Pennsylvania. Local companies have also contributed to Letters From Home. MexAmerica has donated bags of tortilla chips, while the GKN Foundation provided monetary assistance. Northwest Savings Bank conducted a Tootsie Roll drive, a top item frequently requested by soldiers.
"We always used whatever we got in. We always made sure supplies got to wherever they needed to go," Gornati said.
Letters From Home is completely funded through donations from people, organizations and companies. A large majority of LFH's cost were for shipping which ranged from $7,000-$10,000 each campaign.
"They have been wonderful throughout the whole program," Duffy said. "Basically it's a homegrown system that actually worked."
Pick up a copy of the Thursday, April 26, 2012 edition of The Ridgway Record for more.