Bonnie Bosley and Sue Petrie remember the October day that they and their daughters wrapped the first gifts they had collected for a group of Naval Reservist Seabees deployed to Iraq.
"We mailed out five large boxes of toiletries, food and Beanie Babies for the sailors to give to Iraqi children," Bosley said. "The kids wrapped all the packages, we put on some music and wrapped ourselves silly."
"You couldn't even walk in my living room, we had collected so much at that point," Petrie said.
The two Carroll County families started a project called Helping Hands For Our Heroes in September after a friend of Bosley's husband, Jerry, was deployed to Iraq with the Naval Reserve NMCB-23 Seabees unit. The Bosleys' daughter, Rachel, 12, also learned that a girlfriend's uncle was deployed as chaplain with the same unit.
Rachel and her sister, Abbey, 9, and Rachel Petrie, 11, decided to send letters and gifts to the two men. But after some discussion, the girls wanted to adopt the whole unit during its deployment.
With about 375 deployed members in the unit, the girls needed help, since their idea was to send small packages, cards and letters monthly to the Seabees. Contacts with the military got them all the Naval Reservists' last names and ranks, and addresses for the unit.
"The goal, instead of a massive drop of supplies, is to set up a family to adopt one Seabee so there's a more intimate connection there," Bonnie Bosley said.
The Seabees "are a fairly small part of the Navy. They rebuild things," said Daryl Smith, public affairs officer for the Seabees. "There's a lot of rebuilding to be done, a lot of the infrastructure in Iraq took damage."
The Seabees also do construction work for the U.S. forces in Iraq, "making base camps livable for the troops and pretty much any kind of construction over there that is required," Smith said.
The Bosleys, of Melrose, and Petries, of Uniontown, solicited help from schools, churches and Scout groups, asking them to adopt members of the Seabees.
Abbey, a fourth-grader at Manchester Elementary, got permission to bring the project to the school, where the 780 students write letters to the Seabees. In addition, 35 school families, one class and some teachers have each adopted a member of the unit.
Abbey handed out papers with a drawing of the American flag and space for the name, age, school and grade for all the younger pupils. The papers were donated by Staples, Bonnie Bosley said.
The school has had several parents serve in Afghanistan and Iraq, said principal Robert Mitchell, who welcomed the military support project. "I find it's helpful to kids whose parents are serving over there as a connection for the other students to help understand what those kids are going through," he said.
Support also has come from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Frederick, where Sue Petrie's brother, David Oravec, is the pastor. Oravec is serving with the unit in Iraq.
Last month, more gifts were wrapped and sent for Christmas.
"Some people are sending things themselves to their adopted military, like CDs, DVDs, books and phone cards," Bonnie Bosley said.
"One group of severely handicapped students from Frederick County went out and bought candy and gifts, and a group from Loudoun County, Virginia, bought things," Sue Petrie said.
The Bosleys and Petries even sent Gatorade.
"We heard they like Gatorade because they get tired of water and want something with flavor, also soups, so we sent cases of boxed drinks," Rachel Petrie said.
The Bosleys and Petries also are sending weekly area newspapers to the unit so the Seabees can keep up with what's happening back home.
The NMCB-23 unit, based at Ft. Belvoir, Va., has detachments in Norfolk, Roanoke and Richmond, Va.; Baltimore and Adelphi, Md.; Anacostia in Washington, D.C.; Ebensburgh, Erie and Pittsburgh, Pa.; and Youngstown and Akron, Ohio, Smith said.
The Bosleys have since received word from some of the Seabees.
Ed Wilson, Jerry Bosley's friend from Manchester, sent the Bosleys a Christmas card with a picture of 25 members of the unit, including Oravec, as well as some new Iraqi money, which is minus Saddam Hussein's picture.
"Your a rock star ... your sense of patriotism is outstanding - what you and your girls are doing is commendable," Wilson wrote.The girls said they will continue the project, with a theme for each month, until the unit comes home. Next month's theme is phone cards and Girl Scout Cookies.
So far, about 100 Seabees have been adopted. After Christmas, the families plan to approach more groups to try to get as many Seabees adopted as possible.
The Seabees went to Kuwait in early October and Iraq in mid-October and are expected to return in the spring, Smith said.
"Those types of efforts are really appreciated," Smith said. "When they're deployed, they're away from their families, so any contact with the folks back home really does mean a lot to them."