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Laurel volunteers send a taste of home to troops overseas

For troops and civilian workers stationed thousands of miles away in Iraq andAfghanistan, a little taste of home can be a big morale booster.

Eva Black and Maddi Klein know this from experience. The women, along with their friends and family members, have baked cookies and sent them to soldiers overseas every month for the past five years as part of the national organization Treat the Troops.

They have received dozens of letters and emails from recipients thanking them for their efforts.

Treat the Troops, based in South Carolina, was founded by Jeanette Cram, known as "the Cookie Lady," who started sending baked goods to soldiers during the Gulf War. The effort has grown over the past two decades to incorporate groups from 36 states.

Black and Klein's group of volunteers meet once a month in the fellowship hall at First United Methodist Church of Laurel to pack as many goodies as they can into flat-rate postal boxes that are a foot long, a foot wide and 5.5 inches deep. On July 19, about a dozen people formed an assembly line along a row of folding tables, pushed together and packed with treats: baskets and boxes of hard candy, popcorn pouches, cookies, granola bars and 2- to 3-pound brownie slabs.

Two of the volunteers recently returned from service in Iraq, where they had received care packages from Treat the Troops.

"The troops just love and crave to have things from home," said Mike Woodruff, of Laurel, who served in Iraq in 2007 and 2010 as a government employee.

"It really, really helps in so many ways."

Sgt. 1st Class Tammy Goodwin, who completed three tours in Iraq as an administrator in the Army, also volunteered to pack the mailing boxes.

"Morale is the biggest thing," Goodwin, a resident of Fairfax, Va., said of the project. She said her unit received about three boxes a month from Treat the Troops during her last deployment. As the person in charge of mail, she was always the first to know when a new shipment of goodies had arrived.

"Sometimes, I could even smell the brownies when I was walking to collect the mail," she recalled. Once she sent out an email to announce that the packages were in, the treats would be gone within half a day, she said.

Woodruff said the most popular items among the soldiers were always the homemade baked goods. Goodwin said the brownies were so sought after in her unit that they once almost caused a fight between soldiers clamoring for them.

Woodruff and Goodwin both remembered saving some treats to give to local children. In addition to food, Laurel's Treat the Troops group puts Beanie Babies into the packages for Iraqi and Afghan children. They also sometimes cut out crosswords to give soldiers something to do in their free time.

Saying thanks

Klein said the group regularly received letters and emails from soldiers thanking them for the packages. Every month, the boxes are sent out on a Wednesday, and sometimes, the group gets thank-you emails as early as Saturday, according to Maddi's husband, Bob.

One soldier wrote to say that she loved to get the boxes every month, because they reminded her that she was one month closer to coming home.

Local school and church groups, including Bond Mill Elementary School and First United Methodist Church's Sunday school classes, contribute letters written to the soldiers that are put in the boxes, as well.

Maddi Klein said one student wrote that he couldn't concentrate in science class because of a pretty classmate who sat in front of him. A soldier wrote back encouraging him to do his best to pay attention because learning science is important.

"We get wonderful, warm letters back from the troops," Klein said. "They're just so appreciative, and then they ask what they can do for us. But what we're doing pales in comparison."

Since Black and Klein started the group, along with members of the Burtonsville Homemakers Club, they have baked more than 237,000 cookies. They are the third-highest producing Treat the Troops branch in the nation, trailing only Cram's group, with 572,181 cookies sent as of July 18; and a group in Iowa, with 442,062 cookies sent. Overall, the Treat the Troops program has baked and sent more than 2.5 million cookies to troops overseas, according to the organization's website.

When it started, the Laurel group had 13 members and sent off eight boxes its first month. Now, about 300 volunteers have contributed to the program in some capacity to help send off an average of 35 to 40 boxes a month.

At $12.95 a box for shipping (a discount from the regular price of $14.95), sending the boxes isn't cheap. Klein said prices can reach $20 to $25 per box at Christmastime, when the group sends larger packages.

But Black said the price is tiny compared to the service the troops have done for their country.

"We knew that there was a need for the (soldiers) to be remembered, and we wanted them to know somebody cared about them," she said.

Klein said she enjoyed seeing soldiers stop by to help the group pack boxes after they come back from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Goodwin's daughters, Rose Whitmoyer, of Lexington Park; and Ashley Goodwin, of Fairfax, Va., accompanied her to the box-packing session this month. Whitmoyer, who wrote the book "Just Keep Faith" about her experiences having a parent in Iraq, said she drove an hour and a half to Laurel to help pack because Klein had checked in on her while her mother was away.

"I think (Klein) takes each of these people to heart," she said.

Woodruff summed up the deployment experience for many soldiers who are still far away from home.

"While you're overseas, life goes on," he said. "Like they say, time and tide wait for no one. When we come home, we just missed a whole big chunk of life."

Black and Klein said Treat the Troops' goal is to give those soldiers a slice of home every month, however small.

"When I open that box and smell the brownies, it takes me back home to my kitchen and the baking that we used to do there," one soldier wrote to the group, according to Klein. "It's just a reminder of home and the people that support them," she said.

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