PARIS — Last fall two South Paris veterans Groups, the VFW and American Legion, teamed up to support active deployed servicemen for the holidays. It was a new, ambitious project and they were unsure how it would play out. They decided to collect care package donations through the Oxford Hills Chamber of Commerce Annual Christmas Parade and built a float dedicated to the solider away from home.

The float and collection carts built by American Legion and VFW groups from South Paris. Submitted photo

“Being a serviceman/woman, away from family, during the holidays – it’s different for each and every person who has had to live through it,” said Sarah Glynn, commander of American Legion Foster Carroll Post 72. “Despite being surrounded by shipmates, soldiers and comrades, dozens-hundreds-thousands of them, a service person away from their family feels the separation from loved ones deeply.

“To honor our active military, we decided our float should feature poster-sized photos of these young folks from our communities as a way to include them in our local celebration and combine it with a drive for donations to send overseas to support them.”

From left, Ken West, Vera Angell, Rich Hatch, SSGT Alan Hill, SSGT Dylan Braley, Sarah Glynn, Teresa Drag. Submitted photo

The organizations hadn’t built a float before. But they got to work and were able to secure sponsors to cover the cost for the graphics. A chance conversation with a local Maine Army National Guard officer brought an offer to include Humvees driven by guardsmen as an escort to the float. And donation carts hauled by ATVs were fashioned to follow it so that parade-goers could provide their donations as the float passed by.

The groups were thrilled to see their drive become a big success. They even won a parade honor – First Prize for Best Non-Profit Float.

“It exceeded our wildest expectations,” said Glynn on Christmas Eve. “We took in enough to stuff thirty-five boxes that we shipped overseas. Two-ply toilet paper was a big request. Food, games, writing supplies.”

“One of the most awesome things about it was the VFW and the Legion coming to work together,” said Teresa Drag, commander of VFW Post 9787 in Paris.

Packages collected in Oxford Hills ready for delivery to Storck Barracks in Germany, via a Black Hawk helicopter. Submitted photo

A pair of brothers serving in Germany and in South Korea, Matt and Jon Hankey of West Paris, were tapped to act as Santa’s helpers. The care packages were shipped to them and they in turn delivered the boxes to their units for their fellow soldiers.

Soldiers serving in South Korea open their secret Santa packages on Christmas, courtesy of VFW 9787 Auxiliary, American Legion Foster Carroll 72 and Oxford Hills communities. Submitted photo

“Jon had communicated to my husband that they have a repository at their unit for donations from home,” Glynn said. “So we distributed the care packages that way, like Secret Santa gifts. Matt sent us a picture that he took, getting ready to load his share of the shipment in a Black Hawk helicopter for delivery.”

For a pilot project between two groups, the Christmas drive went almost perfectly. There were two issues they had to deal with. One was frigid weather, which is out of their control, and the other was shipping logistics.

“It was so cold at the parade,” said Glynn. “So much that we actually wondered if we should do it again. But after a day or so we recovered and started talking about plans for next year.”

“It didn’t seem like the cold affected the turnout,” said Vera Angell of the American Legion. “The shelter had their dogs walking in their little coats. Some people would jump in their cars and to warm up and then jump back out to see more of the parade.”

Shipping was a bigger headache.

“My husband took everything to the post office,” said Glynn. “He had verified three times ahead of it what they needed for APO/FPO. But when he brought the packages, they said, ‘where are the customs forms?’ Every box had to be reopened, inventoried and sealed back up. New stricter rules. The postal people were as frustrated as we were.

“The postage ended up being twice as much as we expected too. But people stepped up to help us out. The Rotary gave us $200, the Auxiliary gave $100, and members Gil Turner and Vera helped out too.”

The cost of shipping to active military is something the two groups hope to change in the future.

“We went to a Jared Golden town hall event in Dixfield,” said Glynn. “He was talking about veterans issues. So I stood up, very self-serving, and said, ‘why can’t we ship overseas to our troops for free?’ and he had actually heard about our float somehow!”

Regardless of postage and frigid weather, the two groups plan to make their Christmas support of active duty military an annual affair.

“We really want to thank everyone who helped,” Glynn said. “We had seven business sponsors for the float, and help with postage costs. The community really answered the call with their donations. We’re so pleased.  We welcome any veterans interested in learning more about VFW and the American Legion.”

Santa’s “elves” from the VFW 9787 Auxiliary, inventory donated care packages. From left, Jean Phillips, Lloyd Record, Lorraine Hill, Nancy Record, Crystal McKay, Linda Record. Submitted photo

 

 

 

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