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Duo's Efforts Make Mail Call Meaningful

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 21, 2004 – It began when Amy Oxford and her mother, Kathy Williams, saw no outward show of support for deployed troops in their hometown of Harrisburg, Ill. With her husband, Jamal, an Army reservist, scheduled to deploy with his unit based in Fairfield, Oxford realized an opportunity.

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Callie Oxford, 3, daughter of SI Yellow Ribbon Campaign coordinator Amy Oxford, gets into the spirit of packing boxes in Harrisburg, Ill. Courtesy photo

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"Ever since Sept. 11 (2001), we've been wanting to do something in this area because we really hadn't seen much done," Oxford said. "Me and Mom got our heads together and decided what we wanted to do."

Her husband didn't deploy as scheduled, but the dynamic duo began making yellow bows and lapel pins anyway. The profits from the sales of the bows and pins were to be used to send care packages to service members who were not receiving anything at mail call.

And so it happened that on the very day President Bush announced that combat had begun in Iraq, March 19, 2003, Oxford and her mother launched an offensive of their own: the SI Yellow Ribbon Campaign.

The local TV station covered the story, and the next day Harrisburg residents were waiting in line to support their troops with the purchase of ribbons and pins. The campaign's efforts to serve Southern Illinois' troops attracted the attention of a print news service, and suddenly the operation went national.

Requests for the women to send packages to service members multiplied, and they graciously responded to each one. But packing the multitude of boxes -- they've never actually counted how many -- isn't always an easy task for them. Each woman has chronic health problems. Oxford suffers from lupus, and her mother has fibromyalgia.

Both diseases occasionally force the women to take breaks from what they call their "obsession." Yet, they work each day in their headquarters, a building owned by Williams' father, with the help of Oxford's 3-year-old daughter, Callie. And when quitting time rolls around, the work that's left over goes home with them, Oxford said.

A good portion of their time is spent on paperwork required because of SI's nonprofit status. Another time-eater, Oxford said, is filling out customs forms. They are required by the post office and can only be done by hand. Williams said she has developed a repetitive stress injury from filling out so many forms.

While an initial package might be generic, those that follow are as unique as their recipients. Included in those first packages are necessities, snacks and a questionnaire so that future packages can be customized to the recipient's likes and needs. Also included is a note saying who requested that the package be sent.

While some items regularly appear on the lists of wants and needs, one shows up most often.

"Everybody wants beef jerky," Oxford said. "That's always at the top of the list. We get a lot of sad requests, too. A lot of them tell us they want soap or lotion," she said. "You think they're going to ask for some kind of neat snack or something and when they put this request for necessity items, it just kind of breaks your heart."

Oxford and Williams are nothing if not accommodating, however. Even if the requested item is sure to be a chocolaty, melted mess by the time it reaches its destination, Oxford makes sure it gets there -- double bagged and with a spoon included.

And they have added a twist by helping deployed troops reach out to their families at home. Upon request, they will send a goodie box or a card to a spouse or a child to let them know they're appreciated too.

As always, good is tempered, and the women said they have suffered some losses among "our soldiers." Oxford said after corresponding with the troops and getting to know them, they become like an extended family.

"I get those e-mails every day with the casualties in them, and I just kind of hold my breath every day when I read them, hoping that one of those soldiers isn't one of ours," Oxford said.

Nothing about this endeavor is a given. Postage can total $700 in one trip to the post office, Oxford said, and postage donations have slowed.

Obstacles continue to pop up, like the minivan that died in the dead of winter, forcing the women to drive packages to the post office in a convertible with the top down. You guessed it -- it was snowing.

To help raise the money needed to continue their efforts, the women conduct fund-raisers through their Web site. They are offering heart-shaped magnets that read "Half my heart is in Iraq" and another for those who have someone serving in Afghanistan.

Public response has been tremendous, including a visit and donation from Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn. But it's the response of the service members that means the most, the women said. Members of a unit from Fort Hood, Texas, have vowed to visit the women when they return home.

"It's such a rush when one of the soldiers comes by and actually meets us or we get invited to a homecoming," Williams said. "That is just a wonderful thing."

Oxford said she looks forward to the day when SI Yellow Ribbon can hang up an "Out of Business" sign, because a lack of need might be even more rewarding. "I would love to see us put out of business," she said. "That would be wonderful."

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Related Sites:
Southern Illinois Yellow Ribbon Campaign

Click photo for screen-resolution imageAmy Oxford, SI Yellow Ribbon Campaign coordinator, moves packages off the porch to be taken to the post office for shipment overseas. Courtesy photo  
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