Going all out for troops

A word to the wise, when local resident Gail Van Vranken – known to her friends as “Boatsie” of Boatsie’s Boxes fame – invites you to join her on Saturday, Nov. 13 to finish preparing a “few” Christmas stockings due to be sent to deployed troops remember this key point; pack a lunch – and a smile.

“A few” translates into a day’s effort focused on filling, closing and packing at least 10,000 Christmas stockings.

The overall annual goal is to realize getting more than 20,000 filled Christmas stockings ready to ship in the immediate future, so as to have the requested items to their intended recipient by Christmas.

Donations of goods, candies, and the like are welcome, as are donations to help underwrite the cost of shipping the boxes to the troops.

The group is a nationally recognized non-profit entity and has 501@3 charity status.

The operational heart of this annual project is the basement of her family home at 33 Forest Hills Drive, Wheeling, W.Va. 26003.

Most importantly: take this military mom up on her invitation and plan to spend a few hours making new friends and the kind of memories worth holding dear for a lifetime.

The experience is virtually guaranteed to rescue any heart worn down and weary from the hectic pace of today’s world – or by the challenges of being half a world apart from those you love most.

“Volunteers from across the region will gather on Saturday for this project in a building on the grounds that are home to the WV 463rd Engineering Battalion, located just down the hill from the Ohio County Airport on Sgt. Joe Nurre Lane,” said Boatsie.

Individuals and groups are welcome to sign up to help, or can show up on the day of the workshop, and can do so by calling 304-243-0675.

“Anyone wanting to let us know they are planning to come volunteer for any part of that community workshop event are welcome to contact Janell “Zoomie” Loh, special projects coordinator for Boatsie’s Boxes, Inc. Volunteers are welcome to bring a snack, lunch and a drink,” she offered. “We are planning to run two shifts of volunteers that day: one group in the morning and another in the afternoon. The group for the morning will be volunteering from 9 a.m. until noon. The afternoon group will volunteer from 1 p.m. until 4 p.m.

Loh can be reached directly by calling 304-243-0675.

Details about the annual project can be found on the organization’s website at www.boatsie.com/home/newsevents.html

“The need is real and the troops really appreciate everything these volunteers do to make their days a bit brighter. I already have requests for 19,000 Christmas stockings, so we have set our minimum goal at generating at least 20,000 to have shipped to these folks so they are in their hands before Christmas,” said Boatsie.

At the heart of the always growing Christmas wish list of names compiled by Boatsie are the nearly 90 individuals she refers to as “points of contact.”

She is personally in contact with each of these individuals throughout the year as plans are made for this annual effort.

These individuals connect the Christmas stockings to their respective intended recipients.

Generally the stockings arrive at their military destination via a box clearly labeled “Christmas Stockings .Boatsie’s Boxes”.

“We can always use more supplies, more candy, more Christmas stockings and more volunteers to help reach our goal on the community workshop day of generating 10,000 newly filled stockings that day – and getting them boxed, ready to ship,” shared Loh.

If school groups are able to donate items to fill the stockings Loh will coordinate getting the empty stockings to the students.

Each stocking represents a contents of about a $25 value.

Stockings already filled and closed (safety pin, running stitch or runner band) can be dropped off at either Boatsie’s location or at Loh’s residence on National Road in Wheeling across from Wheeling Park.

“Boatsie” is the name by which this local military mom has become known to American military personnel serving in such far off places as Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait.

As a result of the support she has continuously coordinated since 2004 through acts of simple kindness and generosity – basically from one person to another – untold numbers of American troops in the field have found themselves recipients of small gifts – often Christmas stockings ready to burst – that have summoned smiles from deep within the heart of each weary warrior they have reached half a world away from the people they love most.

This is the seventh consecutive holiday season during which she and her many supporters have literally come together on a Saturday to make holiday season magic happen in such a way that it is then shared with friends both old and brand new half a world away.

The formal heart of “Operation Christmas Stocking #7 (2010)” is coming to life as the final details of a plan that will see at least 20,000 are readied for shipping to U.S. troops who will be far from those they love most during the holiday season.

You may think you know a thing or two about stuffing Christmas stockings and what it takes to fill them with just the right goodies and them send them on their merry way safely during the busiest gift giving season of the year, but you might want to consider happily taking a back seat to the annual effort coordinated and accomplished through the resources of Boatsie’s Boxes, a the highly successful and respected military personnel support effort born in the Ohio Valley of a mother’s love.

“Boatsie’s Boxes began in May 2004, when my son, MSgt Patrick R. Van Vranken forwarded to me a personal request from the Deputy Director of programs in Baghdad, for personal items needed for the troops in the Baghdad hospitals. In June of 2004, We began sending the wounded troops our boxes . Four months later, when my son was deployed to Balad, Iraq, we extended our care packages to include any deployed troop in need of our support, we continue adding new troops every day,” she explained.

“Today, our boxes are reaching over 20,000 troops in every branch of military service, Marines, Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen, many on the front lines of operation in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait. We also support several hospitals and Medics in Iraq & Afghanistan,” she offered.

Our mission is to continue to support our men and women in the military in whatever way will bring them comfort.

“On average, we ship 50 boxes each week from Wheeling, this includes our 4 special projects, Christmas Stockings, Valentine Hearts, Easter/SpringTowel Bunnies, Jelly Beans (or whatever we decide to do for that year) and Operation Beat The Heat, in the summer,” said Boatsie. “As of July 2005, we are a charitable, non profit, 5013 Corporation. We are partners with America Supports You, a branch of The Defense Department. We have seven satellite branches in different states.”

The group’s efforts have garnered them national recognition by major media for several consecutive years including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Guide Post Magazine, and many other nationally recognized papers and magazines as well.

In February, 2007 Boatsie was invited to the White House to meet with then President George Bush and was honored for the work done in support of the military troops.

“I plan to do this as long as the troops need me.”

Loccisano may be reached at kloccisano@timesleaderonline.com