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America Supports You: Group Sends Troops 'Hugs From Home'

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 24, 2004 – Mandy Wisenbach and Carolyn Duraski met a few years ago and talk on the phone every day. And though they have never been in the same room -- they met over the Internet -- the two have become such good friends that they joined forces to make sure America's servicemembers are not forgotten.

Supporting the troops is something that is especially poignant to Wisenbach. Several of her family members, including her husband, have served the military. Currently, her 18-year-old brother is in the Navy.

"We write to him weekly, if not more," she said. "I cannot imagine friends and family not writing to their loved ones.

"Carolyn and I were in an adopt-a-veteran organization, and we talked a lot about it," Wisenbach said. "We decided to start 'Hugs From Home' so that no soldier is left with empty hands at mail call."

Wisenbach said the idea formed over a couple of week's worth of conversations. The organization started in August with about 150 members, Duraski said.

"We did a newspaper article in Philadelphia, and it grew to about 600 (members)," Duraski said. "Then we were on the news, and I'd say we're well over 1,300 members now."

That means that more than 1,300 Hugs From Home members have, or want to, "adopt" a servicemember. Duraski said there are about another 150 potential members waiting to be processed and paired with servicemembers. The group has had four or five classrooms adopt servicemembers. Scouting groups have done so, as well.

Servicemembers must sign up through the Hugs From Home Web site to be adopted. This has led to a small snag -- there are more adopters than adoptees.

"We definitely could use any (servicemembers) that need letters or packages or anything like that," she said.

The response from servicemembers who have signed up has been very positive, Wisenbach said.

"The response from the troops has been unbelievable and so heartwarming," she said. "I have received so many e-mails thanking us for what we do. (They) say how much they appreciate it and how it makes their time overseas a bit brighter."

The two ladies are mindful of security and privacy concerns. Duraski said she and Wisenbach are the only two who handle the information from both "huggers" and servicemembers. And huggers are instructed that servicemembers' names and addresses are not to be shared outside their households. The group does hold huggers accountable by asking them to let Duraski and Wisenbach know when they send a servicemember a letter or package.

The only other requirement of a hugger is the commitment to write to a servicemember at least once a month, Duraski said, adding that most go above and beyond that standard.

"Our adopters are absolutely wonderful," Duraski said. "We have got the best group of people in here. They're so dedicated to writing their soldiers. They send care packages, even though it's not required. Anything that the soldiers need, anything at all, they're right there."

The group just concluded a very successful "Operation Christmas From Home."

The goal was to provide National Guardsmen from a Michigan unit with stockings of goodies, Christmas decorations and gifts. The group was able to provide the unit with Christmas decorations, including a tree, and gifts to include a CD or DVD for every unit member. And there were extra gifts donated, Duraski said. Now Hugs From Home is faced with the pleasant dilemma of deciding what to do with the extras.

Group members, who donated all items, are in the process of "adopting" an injured servicemember's family for the holidays. With nearly 20 years of service, the servicemember was injured in Iraq and has been a patient at Walter Reed Army Medical Center since October 2003. He and his wife have three children, ages 4, 8 and 18.

In addition to what the members will give to the family, a 21-employee company has collectively decided to forgo exchanging gifts at the office in lieu of giving to the family from the southern Alabama area. Also, a Pennsylvania day care center that adopts a family each year has adopted the family.

"They're going to have a great Christmas," Duraski said.

The support doesn't end after Christmas, though. In fact, according to Duraski, it doesn't always end after a servicemember comes home.

"A lot of people will keep up their correspondence with their soldier that's at home and adopt another soldier that's deployed," she said.

Hugs From Home hopes to achieve 501C(3) nonprofit status in the coming year. That would allow the group to receive grants, and any donations made to the organization would be tax deductible.

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