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Operation Shoebox

Kennedy Elementary School students pitch in with care packages for the troops

Soldiers on the brink of war shouldn't have to worry about chapped lips, dry skin, hunger pains or hangnails.

Thanks to students at Medford's Kennedy Elementary School, at least 40 U.S. Marines deployed in Kuwait won't have to.

More than 550 children in grades kindergarten through sixth are spending this week assembling care packages of toiletries, snacks and sundries for a few of the estimated 120,000 U.S. troops now stationed in the Persian Gulf region.

I'll bet he or she will be happy that we did this for them, said 11-year-old Kimberly Glazier, a Medford fifth-grader involved in the project dubbed Operation Shoebox.

She was among a half-dozen students packing playing cards, nail clippers, sunscreen and Nerds candies Wednesday to be shipped to Kuwait on Friday.

What will the Marines like best?

Maybe the candy, Kimberly said.

The effort was sparked by fifth-grade teacher Kim Gabriel, whose nephew is a U.S. Marine gunnery sergeant who shipped to Kuwait in December.

They're living in the desert and there are supplies they're running low on, said Gabriel.

Instead of sending one care package to a single Marine, Gabriel decided to hold a schoolwide contest to see how many boxes students could create. As of Wednesday, Kennedy students had contributed more than 3,000 items for the effort.

That will amount to more than 40 filled-to-the-brim shoeboxes, all addressed to Gabriel's nephew, Sgt. Matt Becker, 30, of North Carolina.

I've written a letter to let him know they're coming, Gabriel said. I told him he can't keep them all for himself.

Aimed at providing comfort to the troops and a hands-on lesson in civic action, the project has drawn praise from parents.

Denise Wolgamott, mother of two Kennedy students, took Richard, 11, and Taylor, 6, to Wal-Mart last weekend.

We bought about &

36;50 worth of stuff from Oreo cookies to dental floss, she said. The kids were so excited to do that. They said, 'We're shopping for the soldiers.'

The project sparked family conversations about patriotism, duty and sacrifice, despite what Wolgamott described as conflicted feelings about the prospect of war with Iraq.

I'm really kind of on the fence about it, she said. On the one hand, I think they're looking for an excuse for war. But on the other hand, (Iraq's) time may be due.

Still, Wolgamott was clear about the message she conveyed to her children.

For me, I was trying to impress on them respect for what the soldiers do, she said. Regardless of the politics, they're there and it's nice to support them.

The project is one of several school efforts stressing teamwork, said Principal Susan Inman. Families donated supplies, students donated time, community members such as Mail Boxes Etc. of Medford donated a portion of shipping costs.

It's important for the kids to feel like they can make a difference, Inman said. We all need to feel that way.

A Marine in the Medford recruiting office said getting care packages from children in the United States can't help but boost morale of troops abroad.

It gives you that warm fuzzy inside, said Sgt. Tyler Hoffacker, 26, of Bluffton, Ind. It lets you know that someone does care about you and that you're not just working for nothing.

Kennedy Elementary School fifth-graders, from left, Katy Young, Brady Shipley, Naseef Ashker, Ryan Moore and Jennifer Bryan load care packages headed for troops in the Persian Gulf. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell