Exchange Helping Servicemen

Karen Goloff, left, works with a group of women to create Christmas stockings Sept. 14 at a home in Decatur, Ill. The group of about six women have been meeting for more than 10 years making Christmas stockings.

DECATUR, Ill. — It’s time to begin thinking about holidays.

For a certain band of Decatur ladies, they are starting a little late.

A group of about six women have been meeting for more than 10 years making Christmas stockings. They meet only once a year to accomplish the task of creating more than 130 stockings.

“Normally we’d do it in July just to have them done and out of the way,” said Virginia Franklin. “So there’s no rush.”

The holiday decorations and other donations will be packaged and sent through Operation Enduring Support to military members currently deployed.

Ten years ago, Dorothy Seabok and Ary Anderson were part of a sewing team bringing the hobby to youth at the Grace United Methodist Church, or the GUM program. The project closed for the students, but the adults wanted to keep sewing.

Franklin began sewing with the group only four years ago. The group often meet at her home with their sewing machines in tow. “We just sew here,” she said. “And it’s just regular Christmas material.”

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Other sewers have joined the group. “They’ve been dragging me along wherever they went,” said President of the Decatur Quilters Guild, Mary Traxler.

During the 2020 sewing event recently, Bloomington-area sewer Karen Goloff attended the meeting. “Operation Enduring Support is just a Decatur-thing,” she said.

OES volunteers collect the Christmas stockings and other donations and prepare them for delivery. The local organization was established 17 years ago by Decatur residents Betty and David Gaumer. Ann Irwin has been the director since 2013.

According to Irwin, each box weighs approximately 10 pounds. OES volunteers make sure the soldiers receive everything on the 27-item list. “We take inventory every week,” she said. “If we don’t have enough donated, then we go out and buy the rest so that we have those in every package.”

Care packages, which includes items such as hand warmers, razors, beef jerky and instant coffee, are sent to service members approximately twice a year. In the Easter packages, Girl Scout cookies are a special treat.

The Christmas stockings are filled with candy canes. After the service personnel open his or her box, they find an American flag, a letter from OES, then the Christmas stocking.

The care packages are sent to deployed service members on Dec. 7.

The stockings are a special addition to the package, according to Irwin. “They are something from home and they represent Christmas,” she said. “They can hang up in their tents. We’ve seen pictures of some of them having them hung on the front of their jeeps.”

Another popular item in the care packages is the 1990’s collector’s item, Beanie Babies. Irwin often sees the small toys in the service members’ pictures. “They give them to the children,” Irwin said.

The organization has also sent boxes of Halloween candy collected during the Candy Buy Back program partnered with Jergers Pediatric Dentistry. The boxes are sent to individual soldiers. “So he can share with his unit,” Irwin said.

OES relies on donations of items and money to create the care packages. Each box costs $19.65 to be sent overseas. Each mailing includes more than 100 boxes.

A few of the soldiers have sent OES volunteers letters with messages such as, “Knowing that our communities back home are looking out for us means the world.”

Or “I shared a lot of it with my fellow Marines that did not get a Christmas either.”

Donations or submissions of a military member’s name can be sent to the OES agency. Donations may be delivered to Grace UMC until Nov. 19.

The volunteers also have a sense of pride while preparing the care packages and what goes in them.

“They know the people at home are thinking of them,” Anderson said. “It’s appreciated.”