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1 Million Messages of Thanks for Troops is Freshman's Goal

By K.L. Vantran
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 4, 2004 – Jeff Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet may have been the first to cross the finish line at the California Speedway May 2, but thanks to the efforts of a 15-year-old California girl, U.S. service members also will receive recognition.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Shauna Fleming, 15, poses next to racecar driver Matt Kenseth's No. 17 car, which sports a National Military Appreciation Month sticker. The high-school freshman spearheads a letter campaign, "A Million Thanks," which will collect and distribute 1 million 'thank you' notes to U.S. service members. Shauna set up a booth at the California Speedway on May 2, to collect letters. Courtesy photo

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Shauna Fleming, a freshman at Lutheran High School in Orange, Calif., set up shop under racecar driver Matt Kenseth's No. 17 tent at the Auto Club 500 in Fontana, Calif. The teen's kindergarten teacher is the aunt of Kenseth's wife.

"She thought Matt and Katie would help me in some way," said Shauna. "Then DeWalt (Matt's sponsor) got involved and let us use some of their display space to put up a tent and collect letters during the race."

Speedway officials also lent a hand. "The speedway was awesome," said Shauna. "They made announcements that I was there, and put information about 'A Million Thanks' in the information they hand out to fans."

Her goal is to collect and distribute 1 million letters of appreciation and e- mails of thanks to current and past service members as part of National Military Appreciation Month, which is celebrated each May. To date, she has more than 125,000. She said the project will continue until the goal is reached.

"We haven't added them all up (from May 2) but we're looking at about a thousand," said Shauna. "Many people couldn't stop, but said they would either send an e-mail or do something with their church or school."

The teen said her main reason for being at the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing event was to get the word out about her project.

Shauna's father, Michael, challenged the teenager to get her school to do something in support of the troops as her community service project. Michael founded an annual campaign called "Valentines for Troops" and has distributed more than a million valentines to U.S. troops in the past two years. She decided on a letter campaign, "A Million Thanks," and approached her principal about the idea.

"I can't think of a better way for students to express themselves for the sacrifices made by the men and women in our military than to try to collect and distribute letters of love and appreciation," principal Gregg Pinick stated in a news release. "The students are not asking people to support any military cause, but to take time and write a special 'thank you' letter to our service members for the work they do and for their sacrifices to maintain the freedom we enjoy in this country."

To handle the amount of mail they expect to receive, school officials are organizing students into opening, sorting and packaging teams. The mail will be distributed to a variety of military bases, United Service Organizations and Veterans Affairs hospitals.

"This campaign will be challenging, but very rewarding for everyone involved," said Shauna. "I remember last year when I helped deliver about 300,000 valentines to March Air (Reserve) Base (Calif.). Many of the pilots had tears in their eyes reading the messages. I know the appreciation letters we'll deliver will help to lift spirits."

Shauna said her grandparents served in the Army and Navy but that she didn't know anyone else in the military until she started this project. Three service members Cpl. Frank Guerra, Staff Sgt. Gary Bolsa and Sgt. Carlos Aguilera recently back from Iraq helped her kick off the campaign in March. She frequently gets e-mails from other deployed troops.

Despite warm temperatures, Shauna said she enjoyed her time at the speedway.

"It was hot," she said. "Someone said it was 103 degrees. But I'd do it again every weekend if I could. I just think we need to let our military men and women know that we really do appreciate them."

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