By Devin Leith-Yessian
BERLIN — So many volunteers contributed to Hero Boxes this year that the non-profit was able to pack over a hundred more care packages than they expected to soldiers serving overseas.
"Originally we were supposed to pack 500 boxes, but because of the outpouring of love from our community, we packed 607," said Karen Cote, who started sending care packages to her son’s unit while he was stationed in Kuwait in 2015. She said nearly 1,000 volunteers came to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 511 in New Britain on Nov. 9 in the three hours the event ran for.
The flood of boxes means she’ll be sending packages to more soldiers than ever before — nine soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan will be receiving them to distribute across their units. Cote said one family stood out this year after Berlin-resident Lori Clayette came to the non-profit’s seasonal headquarters at 1041 Farmington Ave. in tears, speaking about how impactful it was to see the support. Clayette’s son Peter Clayette is serving in Afghanistan, where she can hear gunfire in the backdrop of his phone calls home.
"We have our young men and women serving over there and they're in danger. They're away for the holidays and it's brutal. I don't know — I'm not a veteran, I was never a soldier — but I know as a mom what it was like for my son to be away during the holidays," Cote said.
Speaking at Berlin High School during its Veterans’ Day ceremony on Nov. 11, Cote said she’s planning a campaign to reduce the shipping cost for sending care packages to soldiers overseas. She brought petitions with her for attendees to sign and will be traveling to Washington D.C. in December to speak with legislators.
"One of the problems we run into is last year we sent 400 boxes, it cost us $11,000. Anybody here see a problem with that? Yeah, I do. I talked to a military young wife. She said that her husband begs her not to send any boxes, because it costs too much money. Anybody see a problem with that?" she said.
This was the first year the packing date for the boxes was moved from Thanksgiving, a change Cote said allows them to deliver items that can’t be shipped, like aerosol or shampoo, to veterans at the Newington and Rocky Hill veterans hospitals. It will now always be held the Saturday before Veterans’ Day, when students from BHS’ Upbeat club will deliver the gift bags to the hospitals.
Volunteers arriving at the VFW Saturday were greeted by active duty soldiers, handed a box to fill with supplies, and channeled along the walls to collect items for their boxes from tables with labels like chips, socks, drink enhancers and protein. Cote and a cadre of volunteers spent weeks collecting donations, organizing them and partitioning them into the bags, which soldiers can also reuse to keep equipment dry.
From there, they’re given pre-cut sheets of wrapping paper and have their picture taken on a polaroid, which is included in the care packages, so soldiers can identify with those thinking of them back home.
“We gift wrap the items in the boxes, as silly as it sounds to gift wrap razors and deodorant, it's something for them to open up," Cote said.
Vietnam veteran Don Austin said it was overwhelming for him to see the support for today’s soldiers after the animosity his generation of troops received when coming home. “I wish I could’ve had it in my time,” he said.
Part of a line of veterans set up behind a bank of tables in front of the stage, Austin received packaged boxes from volunteers and placed a note on top of the gift-wrapped supplies and taped it all shut. Often families paused after handing him their package to shake his hand and thank him for his service.
“It’s overwhelming and it gets bigger and bigger,” he said.
Looking across the hall from his post at the door greeting volunteers as they arrived, Army Staff Sergeant Charles Jenkins said he was seeing what veterans like Austin deserved in their time.
“It’s very heavy on the heart to be able to participate in such a heartfelt community event where people contribute their own time,” to help people overseas who they’ve never met, he said.
It also gives residents a sense of accomplishment and purpose, while strengthening the community’s camaraderie, he added.
Gulf War veteran Mike Buchholz said he was proud to be able to give back to today’s soldiers and spend time with fellow veterans in a place that they can be open about their service.
“I think as a veteran you typically don’t talk about your service time unless your with veterans,” he said.
He was especially happy to be packing his care package along his family for the second year. “It’s important for the kids to get that pride in country,” he said. “ … My kids are little patriots.”