Support groups themselves find lots of support


Offers of money and support are coming as fast as the family support groups with relatives in the Persian Gulf war can make use of them.

In Catonsville on the west side, a group belonging to a network called Operation Orange Ribbon is receiving unsolicited contributions for its projects. And in Rosedale, in eastern Baltimore County, another support group reports that strangers approach to buy the "Support Our Troops" buttons off their lapels.

The Rosedale group has packed 16 boxes of what Cecelia

Hoehn estimates to be more than 5,000 valentines. Someone's boss in the group volunteered to foot the bill for mailing the valentines to the gulf. Over the past week and a half, Hoehn's group of about 40 people gathered valentines from colleagues, peers and friends at businesses, schools and churches.

"I had people knocking at my door leaving cards," said Hoehn, one of the organizers of last night's valentine box-packing session at Red House Run Elementary School.

The handwritten notes inside some of the valentines said, "God is on your side," or "Guess who's thinking of you?" One from a school near Aberdeen Proving Ground said, "Please come back, because we don't see enough soldiers in the mall any more."

When they finished their work, group members began thinking ahead to cards or gifts for Easter. The group will define and

organize the project the same as it had for the valentine shipment, Hoehn said. "See, this is what happens in our group. We don't have anything. We just talk and it happens."

On the other side of the city, Mary Jane Wright's local version of Operation Orange Ribbon was going full force at a Catonsville church.

When the phone rings or the mail comes at Wright's home in Howard County, chances are it's someone offering money for a network of military family support groups she has helped to organize.

"I got $3.50 from a gentleman in Rockville," said Wright, who has a son serving in Saudi Arabia. "I don't even know how he got my name."

A Giant supermarket sent her four gift certificates for $10 each. And a Beltsville company that makes sweat shirts and T-shirts sent $100, a portion of the profits it makes selling clothes emblazoned with Desert Storm support insignia. The company called just yesterday to invite her to Beltsville to pick up another check, for an undisclosed amount, she said. They just said it was "a nice check for you."

Wright, who lives in West Friendship, has helped start five support groups -- in Catonsville, Woodlawn, Perry Hall, Pasadena and Camp Springs -- for families with relatives in uniform serving in the gulf. All are part of the national network called "Operation Orange Ribbon." Members slice orange ribbon into 2-foot strips, cut each strip in two and send half to an American soldier in the Middle East. They promise that soldier to keep the other half until he or she comes home.

During a support group meeting last night at Bishop Cummins Memorial Reformed Episcopal Church, Wright said she never solicited the money that flows to the group. She dedicates it to buying orange ribbon, mailing it overseas and supporting families struggling on the home front with reduced income.

Some families are dealing with higher expenses in their household budget, most notably the phone bill. Wright said one family had just received a $600 monthly bill, mostly for a series of phone calls from Saudi Arabia.

The amount and the number of phone calls may seem excessive. But, Wright said, "when the international operator says, 'You have a call from Saudi Arabia, will you accept the charges?' I don't know any person that will say no."

The next project of Operation Orange Ribbon groups, she said, will be to lobby AT&T; for a discount on the calls home from the gulf.

The group has no shortage of volunteers. In the turnout of about 40 people to the Catonsville meeting, at least one had no relative in the gulf. The troops are "there for all of us," said Laurie Shillingburg of Ellicott City. "We all have a connection."

Unlike other people in the room who shared their fears in group discussion with a psychological counselor last night, Shillingburg has no family member overseas. She said she attended because "it's paralyzing to think you're here and you're helpless, and you can just do nothing. I can't go over there and fight."

She clipped and tied orange ribbon into small bows and offered encouragement to one mother who told of spending most days and nights indoors because she wants to watch Cable News Network and doesn't want to be away from home if a military car should pull up to deliver bad news about her son in the gulf.

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