By Tilden Bowditch
One local woman will soon be busy assembling and mailing care packages for 12 soldiers who are being deployed to Afghanistan this spring.
Collette Barry-Rec started the Care-Box Project in 2004 after reading Debbie Chalkley’s letter to the editor in the News-Gazette. Chalkley thanked Peggy Hayes’ Rockbridge County High School government class for sending her son letters, pictures and care packages while he was deployed in Baghdad.
“I cut it out and put it by my bed and it just haunted me. I called her and said, ‘You don’t know me, but I wanted to be helpful,’” said Barry-Rec.
Chalkley’s son, Scott, attended Rockbridge County High School and graduated from Virginia Military Institute in 2002. He became the first recipient of Barry-Rec’s care packages and letters when he was deployed in 2004.
Chalkley, who serves as a member of the organization’s board, says Barry-Rec tried to send Scott something at least once a week.
“She goes to great lengths to make sure there are things the military person wants,” said Chalkley, whose son’s request for Cheetos was always granted.
Since then, more than 1,536 boxes have been sent to local soldiers deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq through the Care-Box Project.
“It’s 100 percent word of mouth,” said Chalkley. As soon as Barry-Rec hears the names of local soldiers deployed overseas, she tracks down their mailing information and begins sending care packages and letters.
“I’ll send 30 or so protein bars instead of sending just a couple, so when they open the box, it’s like a little party for the soldier and his friends,” Barry-Rec said.
Sometimes soldiers will write Barry-Rec requesting she send boxes to other men and women in their units who don’t get mail or support of any kind.
“You not only end up supporting that person,” said Chalkley. “They find someone isn’t getting mail or anything at all, so you end up supporting a whole or part of a unit.”
The Care-Box Project also offers support for the soldiers’ families in the Rockbridge area.
Janine Hutchings, who also serves as a board member, said Barry-Rec brought local military families together when there was no civilian support system.
“When I know my daughter is getting support and then I, in turn, can get support from the group, that’s tremendous,” said Hutchings.
Hutchings’ daughter, Jennifer Hutchings, said she received a box almost every week of her 15-month deployment.
“It’s very easy when you’re deployed to feel very remote,” said Jennifer, who appreciated the peanut butter and letters she received from a woman who adopted her through the Care-Box Project.
The Care-Box Project’s “Adopt a Soldier” program allows individuals or groups to adopt a soldier to support independently.
A quilting group offers another arm of support for military families by making quilts with their soldier’s picture in the center. Jennifer Hutchings says she received one with her and her husband’s picture in the center of the quilt.
“It’s so amazing to see such a small community like Lexington to rally around our fighting women and men,” she said.
Barry-Rec credits the community with the Care-Box Project’s success.
The Care-Box Project receives donations from individuals and organizations or groups including Rockbridge County’s VFW Post 1499, Military Officers Association of America, various churches, Ruritan clubs and Girl Scouts groups.
Members of the Blue Ridge Shooters Club also support the project.
“Many are veterans and they appreciate what’s going on here,” said Barry-Rec.
Barry-Rec said she’s trying to encourage groups and individuals to adopt soldiers, especially as the next 12 are deployed this spring. In the meantime, she’ll continue sending as many boxes and letters as she’s able to.
“We just do what we can one box at a time,” she said.