Photo by Dermot Connolly
Mia Villanueva (from left), Cary Napoles and Jacky Connelly sort through cards being sent in care packages to “Mrs. Jacky’s Soldiers” serving overseas.
While some of us are inclined to forget that U.S. soldiers, sailors and Marines are still in harm’s way around the world, Jacky Connelly always remembers them, especially around the holidays.
The Oak Lawn woman and a committed group of volunteers have been packing care packages for area service members since 2003 from her base at the Oak View Center, 4625 W. 110th St., Oak Lawn.
“I’ve been doing this for 13.5 years,” said Connelly, who has been an early education teacher at the Oak View Center for more than 20 years. “I started doing it in March 2003, when one of my students’ only parent was sent to Iraq in the first wave,” she explained. “I was doing it by myself at first, but it grew and I enlisted some volunteers.”
Her “right-hand person” these days is Dawn Jurewicz. The all-ages group now meets at least two Fridays per month, usually from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m.
“We’re not an official non-profit. We’re just a little band of volunteers. All of our soldiers’ names come by word of mouth. They are either from Oak Lawn or the surrounding area, or have connections to the area. Sometimes, when soldiers come home, we send boxes to the person who replaced them,” she said on Friday, as the group got to work.
Holiday boxes filled with decorations, cards, reading material and other items, had already been packed and mailed in November, to arrive in time for Christmas. So on Friday, volunteers were sorting and packing candy collected since Halloween. The Oak Lawn Ice Arena helped out with its Treats for Troops program, in which trick-or-treaters collected candy on Halloween for the men and women in uniform.
Some in the group got busy sorting through the donated Halloween candy, setting aside items unsuitable for mailing. Others then packed and labeled the boxes in preparation for mailing. All the mailing costs are picked up by the group, so Connelly said donated postage stamps are always gratefully accepted.
“We have 500 boxes of candy. It is not even all here,” she said, looking over at a table filled with candy that volunteers were sorting. While hard candy and some chocolate can be sent, Connelly said chocolate wrapped only in foil wouldn’t survive the trip, or the hot weather. “Twizzlers are very popular, and there are so many flavors,” she said. Boxes of non-perishable food are typically lined with magazines and comics sections of newspapers to provide entertainment, as well as protection from dust.
“I do it for the troops. I’ve got relatives in the military so I know how important it is for them to know that people at home are thinking of them,” said Ellie Tripan, who has been volunteering alongside Connelly for 12 years now.
Peg Bauer, who uses a wheelchair, also has been volunteering for several years, despite her own health problems
“We collect candy and supplies in my condo building now. Everyone has been so generous,” Bauer said. “It is great to get out and help people.”
Sara Sabadosa, 24, started volunteering with Jacky when she was in fifth grade at Kolmar School. She is now working on her doctorate in physical therapy, “and I am still here,” she said with a smile.
“This is our first day,” said Cary Napoles, who was there with her niece, Mia Villanueva, who heard about “Mrs. Jacky’s Soldiers” when looking for a way to get service hours for school.
Connelly said the group now sends several boxes per month to 11 soldiers, mainly stationed in Afghanistan or Kuwait, on ships.
“A few are going back to Iraq again, too,” she noted.
She knows the importance of care packages because her mother, Milly, used to send them to her father, Al Fillwalk, when he was in Europe during World War II. In honor of her parents, she puts “Kilroy was here” stickers on every box, replicating the drawings common in World War II, and adds a Freda the frog sticker that has become her symbol.
”There is a little bit of me and my parents on every box,” Connelly said.
Care package donations may be dropped off at the Oak View center. In addition to packaged snacks, cereal, dry soups, tea, coffee and gum, leftover packets of condiments like ketchup, mustard, and soy sauce from restaurants are also popular with the troops. Toothbrushes and travel-sized containers of toothpaste, deodorant and other hygiene products are also accepted, along with books, magazines, puzzles, playing cards, DVDS, CDs and batteries (other than lithium).
“They tell us they need things to occupy their minds in the downtime,” said Connelly, who treasures the thank you notes and photos she receives.
“What we could really use now is postage stamps, of all denominations,” said Connelly. “It costs $18.75 to mail each box, and right now we have enough for one more month.” All donations may be dropped off at the front desk of the Oak View Center between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekdays.
New volunteers are always welcome, too. Velma Kellup, of Oak Lawn, has been volunteering for three years, since coming to the Oak View Center for an AARP program.
“It is just a nice way to give back and meet people,” she said.