By Jeanne Sager
MONTICELLO November 5, 2004 Stephanie Johnson knows theres a whole section of the population who wont be coming home for Thanksgiving so shes sending the holiday to them.
The Monticello mom and head of the local chapter of Operation Support Our Troops didnt want to celebrate Veterans Day the usual way taking the day off of work to sleep late.
With the kickoff to the holiday season just weeks away, Johnson said this will be her organizations next big push to send a soldier some love, along with Gatorade, soap and the Sunday comics.
I dont want you to feel sorry for these guys they dont ask you to feel sorry for them but just think about them far from home during the holidays, she said.
Johnson got involved in OSOT when her son, Erik, matriculated at West Point as a cadet.
She says shes just a mom a mom whod rather not see her son in harms way.
But not every soldier has a mom or dad back home whod do for them like shed do for Erik. So Johnson has pulled together the community to send goodie boxes to deployed troops to remind them that there is still a country full of people who say thank you every day for what theyre doing.
Her last project drew more than 100 people to the Elks Lodge in Monticello on Sept. 11. They sent out 69 boxes filled to the brim with toiletries, snacks and letters of love.
Now shes asking her friends and neighbors to come out again, returning to the Elks Lodge on North Street next Sunday, Nov. 14, from noon to 4 p.m. to fill at least 69 more boxes.
On a weekend dedicated to veterans, Johnson wants to remember the future veterans, the men and women who will be eating their meal replacement rations in the sand dunes of Iraq this November.
When you think about those guys not having turkey dinner . . . it touches everyone, she said.
Johnson already has some of what she needs.
The kids in Kelly Erlweins sixth grade class at Sullivan West colored in pictures and wrote letters to the soldiers. The schools football players and cheerleaders collected donations for the cause in lieu of admission at their October homecoming game.
The Cub Scouts in Pack 102 from Glen Spey are spending their $800 Thrivent Financial grant on supplies theyll pick up at Wal-Mart Thursday evening (which will earn them a citizenship badge).
And donations still come into Johnsons Monticello home in dribs and drabs.
Her favorites are the letters, which she sets aside to stick in the soldiers boxes one woman from Long Eddy sends a letter each month with a donation.
The monthly mailing just blows her mind.
I cant get most people to do it once. . . if its not in your face all the time in the newspaper, they forget about it, Johnson explained. People say, Oh yeah, you were doing that project are you done?
No, she says. Did you see them come home yet?
Johnson said its hard sometimes money is tight, and she has to juggle working full-time with running the OSOT chapter.
Just a few weeks ago she helped a 4-Her, Chris Atkins, by setting aside nearly $500 for postage for the boxes he made for Marines.
Johnson said Atkins did an amazing job of collecting enough goodies to fill 15 boxes. But sending a box to a Marine costs triple what she sends to a guy in the Army because they have to be shipped to California before being sent overseas.
Helping Atkins nearly ate up her whole budget.
But what do you do? she asked. You cant ignore the Marines because it costs more.
Each thank you letter that arrives in her mailbox from somewhere overseas reminds Johnson why she does this project why more people need to get involved.
One man sent her a letter just recently.
He said, Steph, Im coming to Monticello, NY; I want to meet all these people who send boxes halfway around the world to people they dont know, she recalled.
Another that came after the huge shipment on Sept. 11 sends a special thank you to a group of veterans who supplied Johnson with a picture of themselves, listing which wars each served in and which military branch.
Tell all the veterans in the picture that this pic made me feel really good, it said. At times I felt like it was a lost cause, but I know now, one way or another, it will be worth it.
Johnson wants people to fill the boxes she has sitting out at Frankie & Johnnys in Hurleyville or the Elks Lodge in Monticello.
She wants them to show up next Sunday and help fill boxes or drop off DVDs, candy and popcorn for Take a Wounded Soldier to the Movies.
Donations can still be deposited in Operation Support Our Troops account at any branch of the First National Bank of Jeffersonville, and extra goodies can be dropped off at her home at 279 Cantrell Road in Monticello.
Whatever you bring, we will pack it up and ship it on out, she said.
For more information, call Johnson at 796-2339.