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America Supports You: Project Sews Relief for Deployed Troops

By Paul X. Rutz
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 23, 2006 – Karen Stark never liked to sew. But thanks to her efforts, deployed servicemembers throughout the world are getting handmade "cool ties."

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Hazel Houck uses a donated sewing machine to make a cooling tie in Edmond, Okla. Houck volunteers with "The Hugs Project," sending polymer gel neck scarves and helmet inserts to deployed troops. Courtesy photo

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The Oklahoma woman has found her mission organizing groups through "The Hugs Project," a nonprofit organization manufacturing reusable neck scarves and helmet liners with polymer gel inserts that keep cold for hours at a time.

For years Stark wrote to deployed troops and sent occasional care packages overseas to show her support, but she was looking for a way to help more, she said. One day she opened an e-mail illustrating how to make cooling ties for golfers, hikers and vacationers.

"I knew this was something that could help our military, that they were fighting really hot conditions," she said. "I got goose bumps, and I knew this was what my mission was, that I was supposed to make cool ties."

Stark said she hadn't sewn in 40 years and asked friends with sewing experience to teach her. But instead of teaching her, they took the patterns and started making and sending cooling ties on their own.

That, Stark said, is when her husband gave her some helpful advice. "My husband said, 'Maybe your job isn't sewing; maybe your job is telling other people what they can do.'"

After she learned how to make the cool ties, Stark went on the Internet, telling people about her project. She met hundreds of people willing to help make cooling ties, or "hugs" as Stark began to call them.

"People would say, 'I pray for the military every day, but I'm a hands-on person. I want to do something to help,'" Stark said. "This is what they can do."

The project works in a decentralized way, sharing information on the Internet and encouraging most members to manufacture, pack and send goods on their own. With 1,500 formal members and thousands working independently, The Hugs Project works with individuals in nearly every state and 10 foreign countries.

Stark said her particular group meets about twice a week in and around Oklahoma City, where she lives. They also travel to outlying towns and sometimes go on longer trips to spread the word, setting up formal groups (called "group hugs") in Colorado, Texas, Missouri, California and Arizona.

The project also gets help coordinating through America Supports You, a Defense Department program facilitating grassroots and corporate support for the nation's servicemembers.

The project's members continue perfecting their designs thanks to feedback from deployed troops, Stark said.

"We make a helmet cooler that cushions their helmet," she said, referring to the helmet coolers as "kisses." "It's got the same polymer gel in it -- we don't put very much in there because if you put too much, their helmet gets bouncy, which is a bad thing the way I hear it."

The project doesn't just keep troops cool, Stark said. In the winter, the polymer gel inserts can retain heat just as well as they keep cold, and they can be reused many times over. Each "hug" or "kiss" comes with instructions on how to make it a cooler or a heater.

When cold weather comes on, the project switches to winter mode, adding other cold weather items-- such as hats, neck warmers, fingerless mittens, blankets and colorful hats to pass out to Iraqi and Afghan children -- to their care packages.

In all, the group has sent an estimated 150,000 polymer gel items to troops serving abroad.

Stark said she is happy to hear from new members on the project's Web site, but she suggests that people she hasn't met personally go to their local VFW to find addresses for troops overseas.

"When we go out and meet the people personally and we know in our hearts that they're not terrorists, then we share addresses that we have with them," she said. "But we're very protective of military addresses -- in fact, to the point that I've been called paranoid by more than one military mother who wants me to put their son's address on the Internet."

Helping the troops in this way feels best when she gets feedback from them, she said. "That a stranger actually wants to do something for them, they think that's wonderful."

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Related Sites:
The Hugs Project
America Supports You

Click photo for screen-resolution image(From left) Bev Moran, Pam Carel, Retha Roberson, Marcia Hatfield, Karen Stark and Jamee Kiley pose with care packages containing polymer gel neck scarves and helmet inserts ready for shipment to deployed troops. Courtesy photo  
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