NORTH ADAMS -- For the second year in a row, All Saints Episcopal Church will run "Operation Shoebox," their initiative to send holiday care packages in shoeboxes to military personnel stationed overseas. But this year, the collection will specifically benefit the unit of Spc. Michael De Marsico II, a 20-year-old North Adams native who was killed during his service in Afghanistan in August.
"We wanted to honor the fallen soldier by offering this to his unit," said Brian Grande, who heads up the program for All Saints. "We've had a great response already with generous $100 donations from individual parishioners for the postage, which is unbelievable.
"The original Shoebox program started when Harry Truman approved sending care boxes to people in World War II, way back when," said Grande.
A vast number of shoebox programs now exist all over the country, with many individual variations, but mostly all focused on sending care packages to soldiers overseas.
"They used to do it long ago at St. Mark's," Grande recalled, referring to the Adams Epis copal church that merged with St. John's in North Adams to form All Saints. "There it was my mother's idea, but that was 20 years ago. They stopped doi ng it for a while, but me and my wife Ann started it up again four years ago, sending boxes to Iraq. This will be the second year we've done it at All Saints, and it was a great success last year."
Last year, over 100 shoeboxes were sent to Afghanistan, with a total of more than 500 pounds of supplies for the soldiers. Loose plate collection in November at the church gathered the roughly $600 needed for postage, allowing the care package to be sent out in early December.
"We've had some nice letters come back from commanders saying ‘thanks very much,' " said Grande.
All Saints public relations head Lauren Norcross provided a list of items that can be put into the shoeboxes:
"Easily transported foods like pumpkins seeds, peanuts, sunflower seeds and fruit roll-ups; batteries AA or AAA; instant drink mixes, Kool-Aid, Gator ade, etc.; dominos, lip balm, chapstick, travel-sized body wash, Band-Aids, Q-tips, travel-sized deodorant, tooth brushes and paste, hand sanitizers, moist towelettes, Listerine tongue strips, combs, playing cards, small note pads, hard candy, mints, white socks, crossword puzzles, baby powder, pens pencils, personal letters and cards of thanks, writing pads, Kleenex and beef jerky."
Grande, in addition to heading up a number of church initiatives, also has a personal stake in this drive.
"I'm retired military," said Grande. "I was a cook, and then a leadership school in structor and chemical warfare instructor. I served in Desert Storm, and I was deployed out in the desert for a while. When you're out there in the middle of nowhere, simple things like Kleenex, writing pads and drinking water are non-existent out there. You might not think that's a big deal; at home you can just go get yourself a washcloth. But they don't have toothpaste sticking around. We take life being so simple for granted here, but when you're out there in adverse conditions, extreme heat and cold, little things of Gatorade, protein shakes, hard candy, are relief for you."
With the U.S. presence in Afghanistan now stretching well past a decade, the number of casualties is continually rising, Grande explained, with many people whose lives are irrevocably changed forever.
"Hopefully this war will stop," he said, "But until it does, we'll keep doing this. My wife, Ann, and I are major members of the outreach committee."
To support the local Operation Shoebox, Grande and his wife buy shipping boxes and labels, fill the boxes with shoeboxes, and get some local schools to make cards for the soldiers.
"It's a program for basic, simple things that we take for granted in day-to-day life," said Grande. "I looked up the conditions, and they're just terrible. It's extreme climate, extreme mountainous terrain. These forward outposts may have 10 guys protecting a little plot of land. I was pretty forward in Desert Storm, I know how it is. ... It's a good cause: respecting a soldier, telling them we're there for them. We say it, but this lets you do something. There are thousands of groups out there, so we wanted to do something to honor the local soldier that died."
For more information on Operation Shoebox, call All Saints Episcopal Church at 413-664-9656.