Holiday care packages recently gifted to close to 500 senior veterans unwrapped a blessing to dozens of local youth who were given an opportunity to volunteer and give back.
Organized by the All Veterans Memorial and All Veterans Alliance, the Holiday Blessing Boxes initiative was completed last week when close to 100 volunteers worked together to donate, collect and assemble 498 holiday packages filled with much needed items such as toiletries, lap blankets, socks and playing cards. Recipients were senior Veterans and retired firemen.
Assembly of the boxes took place at the Mt. Olive Senior Center in Budd Lake on Saturday, Dec. 19, from 8:30 a.m. until 7 p.m., just in time for delivery to those who may have been forgotten or alone during this holiday season as a result of COVID 19 restrictions and precautions.
The pandemic has placed many seniors in isolation to protect them from the disease. It has also kept students out of school and away from other important activities such as volunteering to help others. The Blessing Boxes initiative not only brightened the Veterans’ holidays, but it gave individuals, especially students, a channel to hold onto altruism, have a purpose and utilize a good reason to just get out of the house and make a difference.
“Our outreach effort was not only to make a difference in a senior veteran’s life during the holidays – but to provide awareness and opportunity for the community,” says organizer Charlie Wood Uhrmann, founder of the AVM and AVA.
“Seniors in care facilities are often forgotten; notwithstanding they were most affected by the pandemic,” she says. “People are generally kind and caring – but oftentimes feel helpless. Outreach efforts such as the Holiday Blessing Boxes not only gives people an opportunity to be proactive and supportive and caring – but instills a warm spiritual feeling.
“I am a firm believer that we must begin providing a sense of normalcy, kindness and hope to our children,” continues Uhrmann. “For the past nine months, we have created a landscape of hopelessness and fear in our children and community at large. Our reaction has caused an exponential spike in despondency, depression and suicide across the board. If there is any notable reaction from this project was the expressed appreciation from not only the students who volunteered – but the sincere gratitude from each one of the parents. Ms. Greszczak’s Gifted and Talented students were incredibly grateful and most did not want to leave.”
Providing much needed items to Veterans during winter months and holidays is not new to the AVM and AVA.
In previous years, the AVA and Morris County American Legion have delivered thousands of severe weather backpacks, coats and blankets to homeless veterans. This year, that effort has been rechanneled to bring some comfort to veterans living in VA facilities in New Jersey.
“Times have changed,” explains Uhrmann. “COVID19 and the recent riots and random attacks creates dangerous conditions for our volunteers. No one has suffered more than our seniors during this pandemic. COVID19 has taken its toll on their physical and mental wellbeing. Seniors living in care facilities have been restricted from seeing their beloved family members and friends from the outside. Inside the facility, they have seen their beloved friends suffer and even die from the virus. Seniors in care facilities are often forgotten.”
In a letter trying to engage volunteers to help with the project, Uhrmann writes, “Due to the Covid virus, and the lock-down restrictions, there has been an exponential rise in despondency and depression among our elderly veterans as they have watched their beloved friends pass due to the virus and are restricted from seeing their families. This year we will turn our attention to those who have been hit hard by the pandemic, those in our Veteran Care Facilities.”
This year, the recipients for the Holiday Blessing Boxes were senior veterans in state care facilities; Menlo, Veterans Haven and the firemen retirement home in Boonton, says Uhrmann.
As for the name of the initiative, Uhrmann did not have to search far.
“The name Holiday Blessing Boxes came from me,” says Uhrmann. “Not a day goes by that I am not reminded of how blessed I am. Blessings from God are not meant to be kept to oneself, but shared with others. Giving to those you have not met is much like military service; our warriors protect the liberty and freedom of people they have never met. It gives God joy to see us love each other unconditionally.”
Individual Groups Volunteer
Out of the 100 volunteers that helped in the effort to collect and assemble items for the Holiday Blessing Boxes, a good majority were students from Ann Greszczak’s Gifted & Talented classes at Mt. Olive Middle School.
“Their parents jumped right in to help,” says Uhrmann.
Other key players were Robert Bedell of MOHS JROTC; and General Frank Dulfer of Post #91, says Uhrmann.
“All went amazingly well,” says Uhrmann. “All went smoothly.”
Uhrmann had rallied her troops for the Holiday Blessing Box operation and by the time the day was done had 498 packages sealed and sanitized, ready for delivery.
The following is a list of businesses and organizations that volunteered to help with the Holiday Blessing Boxes:
All Veterans Memorial, Charlie Uhrmann donated custom eye glass cleaning cloths; All Veterans Alliance, Charlie Uhrmann donated custom face masks / lanyards; American Legion Post #91, Amery Vasso donated lap blankets; American Legion Post #450, Dennis Porporna donated custom lip repair balms; DAR (Daughter of the American Revolution), Carrie Efinger donated holiday face masks; Education Association of Mt. Olive granted MOMS Gifted and Talented’s Ann Greszczak copies of the book “Yorkie Doodle Dandy” and movie “Angel in the Foxhole;” Home Depot, Edward Flynn donated custom cell phone holders; Meier Stone Company, Karl Meier donated custom hand sanitizers; Mt. Olive High School JROTC, Robert Bedell donated playing cards; New Jersey Department of Veterans Services donated custom water bottles; Walmart Hackettstown provided food for volunteers; Walmart Flanders provided chocolate crepes; Walmart Kearney donated eco-friendly tote bags; Walmart North Brunswick donated socks.
“There were many private donors, to which we purchased tooth brushes, tooth paste, body and hand moisturizers,” adds Uhrmann.
With a plan to have packages in the recipients’ hands on or before December 24, “boxes were delivered immediately,” says Uhrmann. “Ann Greszczak delivered the blessing bags to the Firemen’s Retirement Home in Boonton; Amery & Sara Vasso delivered to Menlo; Dennis Porporna delivered to Veterans Haven; Bill Robinson delivered to the other home.”
Safety & Sanitation Protocols
Unlike years passed with her other collection drives, Uhrmann had to limit the number of volunteers who could assemble at one time. She also required volunteers to wear masks, aprons and gloves, maintain social distancing and provide sanitized packages to the recipients.
“Each item was kept in a sterile environment,” says Uhrmann. “Most were individually wrapped. Tables were sterilized and draped with clean sterile tablecloths. Boxes remain sealed until assembled. Each volunteer was provided hand sanitizers and gloves before handling the items. As the bags were completed, they were placed in airtight bags before being delivered to each facility.”
Because of safety issues, Uhrmann says “We were not allowed to enter the facilities. We dropped the gifts off.”
Those who delivered the items did not get to see the direct response from the individuals who opened their blessing boxes, but photos taken show the content on their faces.
“The photos speak for themselves,” says Uhrmann.
Deeper Look Into The Roles Each Played
The Mt. Olive High School Air Force JROTC in Flanders collected playing cards for the Blessing Holiday Boxes.
“Our contribution to this amazing outreach by All Veterans Alliance was 435 individually wrapped decks of cards,” explains MOHS Air Force JROTC Aerospace Science Instructor Rob Bedell. “The cadets ran a Decks-for-Vets drive that garnered all the donations.”
Bedell does not have an exact count of how many students helped with the initiative “since the cadets ran a drop box. One of our cadets, Justin Nguyen, created the Deck-for-Vets flyer and oversaw the collection. Since the school was closed due to COVID, one of our students, Jason Musal, volunteered to put the drop box out every morning at 7 a.m. and pick it back up at 4:30 p.m. for eight days straight to ensure everyone had the most convenient opportunity to donate.”
Bedell explains why the MOHS JROTC participated in this initiative.
“As for why this outreach was so important to us, it is simply another opportunity for us to give back to fellow Americans who have given so much of themselves,” says Bedell. “This time of year is normally tough on folks who may not have any family close by to visit and spend the holidays with, but this year is exceptionally hard due to the extended isolation.
“For our cadets, it is an outreach that helps them learn the benefit of giving back and to honor those who have served to give us our freedoms,” he says. “Hopefully this "Blessing Box" brings a bit of happiness to those veterans who need that extra reminder that they are appreciated and loved.”
MOMS G&T Students
More than 40 students from the MOMS 8th grade Gifted &Talented classes participated in the Holiday Blessing Boxes, says their teacher Ann Greszczak. They made “over 500 cards for the veterans and former firefighters,” she explains. “The cards were made and sent to me electronically. I then forwarded them to Staples and had them printed.”
On the day of operation assemble, “over 30 students showed up to help assemble the boxes,” says Greszczak. “Some brought their siblings, some moms and dads stayed to help. Due to COVID, this part was not a school sponsored event although I organized the sign up and was the contact person for it.
”Since their participation was done outside of school, Greszczak wrote a letter to the parents explaining the volunteer opportunity for the students and the role they could play.
“This is not a school activity but rather an opportunity for community service sponsored by the All Veterans Alliance Volunteer committee,” Greszczak wrote in her letter to parents.