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Package with care from homefront

Solon Springs student Tanner Sellwood shakes hands with Vice Commander Russ Hagberg from the American Legion Post 499 in Gordon. Also pictured are students Cash Kastern, center, and Jonah Smith.

Donna Smith's fourth-grade classroom was a scene of controlled chaos Dec. 2.

Students walked from desk to desk filling boxes with candy canes, Chap Stick, pistachios and other treats. They clamored to secure the best items for their care packages — each destined for a member of the military — because a personal stake in the project.

Every recipient held a connection to the Solon Springs school district.

"When they were carrying that box around and they were filling it with goodies, they actually knew that was going to somebody whose family member or whose friend meant a lot to that person," Smith said.

Students took pride in assembling their boxes, Smith said, because the gifts were headed to people they could picture — a classmate's uncle, a teacher's son.

Every box went to a family member or friend of someone the students can see in the halls of their school.

"It was a learning experience for the kids to actually see how many staff had that connection with military families," Smith said. "It's not just one or two, there's multiple families that have some connection."

This marks the second year students from Solon Springs have sent boxes to troops with local ties. Smith began the project last Christmas, and this year Beth Kesler's fifth-grade class joined in as well.

Donations for the holiday boxes came from individuals and businesses in the community. Items included practical necessities like Q-tips, baby wipes and lip balm, as well as sweet and savory treats.

"Jack Links donated jerky, the students brought in items, staff brought in items and the American Legion gave us money to buy items and for the postage to mail out the boxes," Smith said.

In all, the Solon Springs students sent 13 boxes to service members stationed both in the U.S. and abroad.

Certain items, like chocolate, could not be shipped overseas, but every box included a personal touch: Christmas cards from the fourth- and fifth-graders.

Blake Udeen, a student in Smith's fourth-grade class, thought the cards were the highlight of the care packages.

One of the holiday boxes was sent to his uncle, Donald, who is a Marine stationed in Arizona.

"I felt really emotional," Blake said. "I felt this is one of the best things I've ever done."

Blake said students filled their handmade cards with Christmas wishes and notes of thanks to the military men and women for their service. Each card was individualized for the recipient of the box.

"They're thinking of others, and that's what the season is about," Smith said. "The candy will be eaten, the Q-tips will be used, the baby wipes will be used, the Chap Stick will be gone, but the cards and the memories and the thoughtfulness will stay forever."

When students packed and shipped the boxes on Dec. 2, two members of the American Legion Post 499 in Gordon stopped by to help. Commander John Hoelter and Vice Commander Russ Hagberg spoke with the students and shook their hands as they packed their holiday boxes.

"They were helping us put the boxes together," Blake said. "They told us how many years they had served, some of the things that happened when they were serving and things like that."

To fill the boxes, the students formed an assembly line with their desks as stations. Each desk held a smaller box of items that had been donated.

Michael Khalar's desk served as the candy cane station. The fourth-grader helped divide the peppermint treats to ensure each box received at least three.

Michael said the process of filling the boxes went smoothly, and he was happy to have taken part.

"I felt really good about it because I've had a lot of family that have served," he said. "My grandpa is the only one in my family that has served that is still alive. He was in the Army."

Michael also had a two great-grandfathers who served in the Navy and the Marine Corps, and an uncle who was in the Army.

"Just doing all that made me feel like I had a lot of respect for my family," Michael said.

Smith, who describes herself as a "proud Marine mom," understands how much a small reminder of home can mean to service members. Her son, Isaiah, is a Marine currently stationed in California, and she has two nephews in the Marine Corps.

Several of Smith's students also have family members in the military, including Paetyn Simenson.

"My dad is in the Air Force," Paetyn said. "He goes out a lot and I miss him. He's a firefighter too."

Paetyn said it felt good to put the boxes together for members of the military, but she was also sad for the men and women who would not be with their families for the holidays.

She hoped the boxes would be enjoyed and provide the recipients with a dose of holiday cheer.

Smith holds the same hopes for the annual project.

"I just wanted to bring that connection, how this little school — 14 kids plus 25 kids from next door — could make a difference," Smith said. "Everybody can make a difference somehow."