DEVENS — On a recent Saturday morning, the Junior Ballroom at Devens Common in the Spring Hill Marriott was bustling like Santa’s workshop as dozens of volunteers sorted, counted and packed hundreds, maybe thousands, of items laid out on tables around the room, gifts for military men and women serving overseas this holiday season.
The event was the 10th annual Operation Cookie Drop and organizers say it could be the last. They pulled things together in just over a week this time around.
Organizer Bryan Dumont explained the hurried time frame in an “emergency” on-line memo sent out a week before the “staging” event.
Citing “security issues” due to rapid downsizing of troops in Iraq as the United States prepares to wrap its military operations there later this year, Dumont said it was more difficult to identify a unit to send care packages to as they did in the past.
But they found two companies of U.S. Marines, 300 men stationed on the front lines in Afghanistan who won’t be home for Christmas.
Cash donations as well as anything from an itemized list that ranged from food to personal care items to “fun stuff” and more were requested. Items that can’t be shipped go to Veterans Inc., which aids homeless veterans via Veterans in Transition at Devens.
Despite the short notice, volunteers and contributors rallied to the cause, including the Spring Hill Marriott, which donated use of the room again this year.
Grouped like store displays, the gift items — all donated and dropped off from 9-10 a.m. — were inventoried and categorized to align with the advertised wish list and included everything from snacks to socks; books, CDs and DVDs; toiletries, candy, handmade hats and homemade cookies.
Topped with cheery greeting cards made by local elementary school children, assortments — hand-picked to match the wish list — were packed into boxes. Shipping labels filled out as part of the assembly line were affixed later.
Loaded into the trucks of two volunteer organizers, Dumont and Kevin Hayes, the boxes would be taken to the Ayer Post Office Tuesday morning to be shipped out, Dumont said. Postage was paid in part with existing donations, supplemented with proceeds from ongoing fundraising efforts, including a comedy show Saturday night.
Volunteers included students, local town officials and schoolteachers and other familiar faces.
Lura A. White Elementary School teacher Charlene Shorey oversaw the labeling process.
Ayer-Shirley Regional High School Spanish teacher Brenda Rodriguez and her students were easy to spot in their distinctive sombreros.
Ayer-Shirley Regional High School students Stevie Schaeffer and Hannah Levensailor, and her brother, Kyle, were operating a sealing machine.
A man from Concord and four women from the Greater Waltham Tea Party came to help with the packaging operation.
Dumont said most of the credit for pulling it all together goes to his wife, fellow-organizer and Shirley Selectman Kendra Dumont.
It was Kendra Dumont’s idea to move Operation Cookie Drop out from under the umbrella of the Republican Town Committee, which had taken it over from American Legion Post 183 in Shirley.
The Legion and its Women’s Auxiliary launched the operation a decade ago.
Explaining the RTC pull-out, Dumont said the effort shouldn’t be perceived as political. She shared a story that illustrated what the effort is all about.
At a prior staging event, a Devens soldier passing by the room asked what was going on. Told that volunteers were assembling Christmas care packages for U.S. troops, the young man told Dumont he’d been on the receiving end of their mission once, when he was stationed far from home over the holidays. “I got one of those packages,” the soldier said. “It meant a lot to me.”
A parent’s perspective
Jean Connolly, of Pepperell, was participating for the first time and enthusiastic about it.
In previous years, she baked cookies to send to her son Robert, a Marine, when he was overseas, she said. Now home safe and sound, her son was discharged in August.
Once, she shipped 300 Beanie Babies to his unit, she said. This year, her craft group knitted warm winter hats for the troops.
Connolly learned of the “Cookie Drop” appeal on Facebook. The picture, especially, captured her heart. “When I saw all those boxes, I just had goose bumps,” she said.