When he was deployed in Iraq with the Minnesota National Guard, Aaron Burdash drew comfort from care packages he received from a local service group in his hometown of Cottage Grove.
“It was a really cool experience,” said Burdash, 27. “That was the first time I had been away from home for that period of time. It was really cool to know that there were people back home who were thinking about you and had taken time out of their busy lives back home to send me things.”
Burdash was a sergeant who served as a medic in the patient receiving area of a base hospital in Basra. He also served in Egypt.
His mother Penny was involved in A Touch of Home, a local volunteer group who assembles bundles of toiletries, baked goods, books, batteries and other items to mail to service members overseas.
Today, troops continue to receive packages from the group, as well as from others such as American Legion Post 98 in St. Paul Park. Both organizations were founded in 2003 to support members of the armed forces stationed or deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Bosnia or Germany.
A Touch of Home coalesced through the efforts of about a half-dozen residents, most of whom had children or relatives who were deployed overseas.
Co-founder Linda Lehrke of Cottage Grove recalls receiving an email from her son Karl, who was serving in Iraq.
“He said, ‘Mom there’s a lot of guys over here who just don’t get packages,’” said Lehke, whose sons Hanz and Rod Jr. also served.
They assembled their first packages in the basement of one of their members, Mary Petersen. Then Lehrke approached Phil Print, pastor at Crossroads Church in Woodbury, for permission to use the church and its affiliation to solicit donations.
They meet at the church the second Saturday of every month to prepare new packages. Some packages might also include letters from schoolchildren or loved ones. Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops and local businesses also contribute items.
“At one time we had 55 guys and gals on the list,” she said. “We’re down to 18 right now, which is good since that means they’re home.”
Their monthly mailings can cost as much as $300. A March 29 benefit concert at Opinion Brewing Co. in Newport raised money for postage and other expenses.
“Any person that’s overseas in the military we will add them to our list,” Lehrke said. “It doesn’t cost them a penny. But they do have to have a military address. We get a little bit of a discount from the post office. We keep them on the list until we hear they’re back.”
The American Legion Auxiliary Unit 98 has eight military personnel on their current mailing list, president Lynn Duffy said. They mail them packages once a month. They’ve had as many as 40 individuals, she said.
“As a mother that had a son over there, it does help relieve some of the stress,” Duffy said. “It makes you feel better at least knowing that your child or loved one is remembered. We do get cards and letters from them thanking us.”
They pack boxes the first Thursday of every month. To help pay the $25 to $30 cost of assembling and mailing each package, they have a donation jar and hold a bake sale during their annual Legion Booya.
“We send larger boxes in November and December so we can send holiday decorations and treats,” Duffy said.
They might also include donated items from the Marines Toys for Tots holiday drive that aren’t suitable for children, such as batteries, cards and hand-held electronic games with a gambling theme.
Both organizations are required to fill out a customs form for each package, with a list of what items are enclosed. Duffy said they try not to make their lists too specific.
“At Christmastime you want some of that stuff to be a surprise,” she said.
To donate or volunteer to A Touch of Home, visit www.atouchofhome.us.
Cash donations can also be mailed to the attention of the auxiliary president at American Legion Post 98, 328 Broadway, St. Paul Park, MN 55071. Toiletries, food cans and other items can also be placed in the donation box at the American Legion.