In the past 15 months, the Mount Airy Senior Center's monthly care packages to Iraq have expanded from peanut butter and crackers to accommodate personal requests from U.S. soldiers and provide small gifts for Iraqi children.
Along with snacks, toiletries and stamps, center members pack baseball caps, flea collars and miniature cars into their shipments to the military serving in Iraq. The caps, especially those with team logos, are popular camp attire. The collars repel pesky sand fleas from ankles and deter the insects from nesting inside backpacks. The small toys, mostly Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars, might have helped save lives, according to one soldier's thank-you note to the center.
The soldier reported handing out the toys to a group of Iraqi children playing near his unit. The friendly gesture apparently encouraged the children to chat with the soldiers. In broken English, a few of them warned the soldiers of land mines buried along the road where their convoy was headed.
"We know from that story that we have saved lives, so now we make sure we pack toys in every package," said Helen Malinak, who helped start the care-package project in November 2003.
Each package starts with an empty cardboard box decorated with a red-white-and-blue star, a teddy bear with "Mt. Airy, Md." printed on its chest and a list of suggested items. All manner of articles begin to appear in the box at the center's reception desk. "We just leave it out, and people fill it up," said Olivia E. Schrodetzki, center manager. "These are very generous people."
When it is nearly full, Lavinia Kelley starts baking. Her homemade cookies go into the package last -- to ensure they arrive as fresh as possible. She has made gingersnaps, sugar cookies and, this month, plans to bake chocolate-chip cookies.
"I saw Peter Jennings there [on TV] last week, and he had a winter coat on," Kelley said. "I think it is cold enough now that the chocolate won't melt."
Dick Baker, an Army veteran who served stateside during the 1950s, said, "Homemade, that's what counts."
To prevent rattling and breakage en route, Kelley fills the gaps in the cookie tin with hard candy and then seals the container tightly with tape.
"That's so we can't open the tin and taste," said Malinak's husband, Walter.
He recalled his World War II experience, serving in the Army Air Forces on Saipan and longing for mail from home.
"We never got any care packages, but I can imagine how these men and women today appreciate this," he said.
The packages have evolved to include "things that we would not think of on our own," Baker said.
One soldier suggested the collars to ward off sand fleas, he said. "They put the collars around their ankles and blouse their pants around them to keep the sand fleas from biting," Baker said, adding a collar inside a backpack will also ward off fleas.
The center mails at least one package a month, often to a relative or friend of one of the center members. The 18th shipment will go out this month. Names of those serving come from center families, area churches and veterans' organizations. All the center asks is that recipients share the contents of the packages.
The Malinaks' niece, a captain in the Army Signal Corps, e-mailed them shortly after arriving in Iraq late in 2003.
"It would be great, if you could adopt us," she wrote. "There isn't a better platoon in the Army."
The Malinaks and their friends at the center quickly obliged. Their niece, one of the first recipients of a gift box from Mount Airy, e-mailed her thanks with a request for more.
"She told us she was on everybody's good list the week the package arrived," said Helen Malinak.
A holiday can lend a theme -- at Christmas, the box included stacks of greeting cards signed by hundreds, and Valentine cards will make their way into this month's box.
Baker packed Maryland Terps caps and basketball statistics last month. The package weighed about 30 pounds and contained 45 items, including an outsized plastic jar of peanut butter. The packers add local newspaper and magazine articles and large greeting cards with numerous signatures and personal messages -- all meant to encourage, they said.
"We only send them the good news," said Helen Malinak. "We pull out the bad things."
The troops will also find trail mix, playing cards and hand-held games among the gifts. Money donated to the effort helps organizers buy whatever is missing and helps the center with postage to New York City. The government picks up the postage tab from there.
The packers have discovered that Tootsie Roll candies make a sturdy yet tasty box-filler that can keep the contents from shifting.
"We get a gigantic bag and fill in all the crevices with something the soldiers can eat," Schrodetzki said.
The messages from Iraq are few but inspiring, the volunteers said. A helicopter pilot asked them to "say hi" to his relatives near Mount Airy. An Air Force officer conveyed the thanks of his entire unit.
An Army sergeant stationed with a medical unit wrote, "It means a lot to us anytime we get stuff like that out here. It lets us know that there are people back home that really care for us."
Helen Malinak saves every letter and e-mail. "We want them all to know that we are thinking of them," she said. "We don't have to hear back. We would do this if we never heard anything."