After Jan Conkel's son joined the military last September, first-graders at Churchville Elementary School wrote letters to him.
Their gesture sparked a desire in Conkel to do something to help soldiers who are deployed and have no families, she said.
"Those letters to my son made me think," said Conkel, 45, of Bel Air. "My son has a family, so he doesn't have to worry about not having someone to write or send him care packages if he gets deployed. But some soldiers don't have family, and I wanted to do something to help them."
Conkel researched programs for soldiers online, and found Soldier's Angels, an international program started in 2004. The program has about 200,000 volunteers who share their money and skills to offer aid to deployed or wounded soldiers, their families and veterans.
After she learned more about the program, she said she adopted some soldiers.
"These young people have volunteered to be a member of the armed forces and they know when they do that, they will have to go to Iraq or be deployed," said Conkel, who spends $500 to $1,000 every six weeks on care packages for her adopted soldiers. "If they can do that for me, then I can do this for them."
However, her packages didn't seem like enough, she said. She wanted to initiate something bigger.
Remembering the letters to her son, she contacted a friend at Churchville Elementary School and asked if the students might be interested in helping soldiers. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Shortly thereafter, Conkel started a program called Students Saluting Soldiers.
Through the program, the 369 pupils at the school wrote letters or made cards for soldiers who are deployed. They also donated items on a list sent home in April, including hygiene products, sunscreen, sheet sets, energy bars and other food items, such as cookies and ramen noodles.
"I wanted to create something that would involve children, and teach them at an early age to be of service," said Conkel, a registered nurse. "I want them to see that making a difference can be done without money. The soldiers appreciate every letter or card. They really get so excited when they get a care package."
Conkel's program combined all the things the children learned in the school's patriot program that they had recently completed, said Joanna Mazza, who teaches the gifted and talented classes at the school.
"I don't think the children realized the hardships and sacrifices the soldiers have to make when they are deployed," Mazza said. "We spent days studying patriots, and they now see these soldiers are patriots."
Brooke Zeberlein said she saw the program as a chance to show her patriotic spirit.
"After all the things the soldiers do for us, this is our chance to give back," said Zeberlein, 11, of Bel Air. "They are helping to save our world. I want to help them survive. I collected oodles and oodles of noodles, and the powder they put in their bottled water to make drinks. It's not as much as they do for me, but it's really nice for me to be able to help."
With members of the student council at the helm, the pupils collected more than 125 pounds of food and nine sets of bed sheets that were boxed and shipped in April.
Last week, they collected again, this time focusing not only on food items, but also sunscreen and lip balm, Conkel said.
Madison Costabile said she signed on to help with the program because it helped get her involved. She constantly reminds fellow students about the program and asks them for donations, she said.
To get the word out to the entire school, the collection is announced during morning announcements, she said. She also has spread the word throughout her neighborhood, and has helped collect items.
"I think this is a great program," said Costabile, 11, of Churchville. "A lot of my neighbors have people in Iraq, and they tell me to let them know when we are collecting. So this program helps our school and our community."
Although the school has collected for Harvest for the Hungry in previous years, plans are under way to continue the program at the school next year, Mazza said.
Over the summer, Conkel's goal is to create a nonprofit organization, secure some sponsors and eventually have the program in all of the county's schools, she said.
"I would like to see all children enrolled in the county's schools participate in this program," Conkel said.
The program has been a real eye opener for Holland Orndorff. When she heard about the program, she said it made her think more about the soldiers.
"I didn't realize that I have my freedom because the soldiers are serving our country," said Orndorff, 11, of Churchville. "We have freedom of speech because the soldiers fight for it. This program gives kids a chance to show they care. And we do."