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Illinois Volunteers Create Care Packages to Cheer Soldiers

A woman packing boxes with food
At the Oak Lawn VFW Post, Jacky Connelly prepares a package to be sent to soldiers overseas.
Photo by Olivia Obineme

In 2003, Jacky Connelly was working with youth programs at the Oak Lawn Park District when she learned that a child’s mother, who was in the Army, was deploying to Iraq.

Connelly’s father was a decorated Army sergeant, and she recalled how her mother faithfully lifted his spirits with letters and care packages during three years overseas.

“It was my turn to pay it forward,” said Connelly, 65.

She set an empty Easter basket in her classroom at the park district office, hoping for donations of food and other items to send a care package to the child’s mother. The result was far better: She got enough items to mail a package a week to the soldier during her three-month deployment.

Seventeen years later, Mrs. Jacky’s Soldiers, Connelly’s dedicated group of volunteers, have collected, packed and shipped nearly 6,500 boxes of food, toiletries, games, books and playing cards to some 280 service members overseas.

Even during the coronavirus pandemic, volunteers assemble and mail packages regularly to 10 military personnel.

Recipients land on Connelly’s list through referrals from relatives and, occasionally, strangers, such as a woman Connelly met in line at a dollar store whose husband was overseas. “Our soldiers seem to find us,” she said.

U.S. Army Major Dan Johnson, from Arlington Heights, received packages during his tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Each box contained a handwritten note from the person who packed it and enough goodies for Johnson to share with his platoon.

“It gives you a little bit of home,” Johnson said, recalling the thrill of getting a package during mail call.

Efforts Despite COVID-19

Before the coronavirus struck, Connelly and about 18 other volunteers met at the Oak Lawn Park District office once or twice a month, spending two and a half hours packing 24 boxes with items donated by the local community, Girl and Boy Scout troops, veterans organizations and church women’s groups.

This year, Connelly and her team are collecting donations and packing them in their homes. They send four types of boxes: food; toiletries, personal items and the occasional inflatable beach ball or other toys; holiday decorations; and media, including books, music and movies.

Connelly draws “Kilroy was here” on every container as a tribute to her father, who told her that during World War II, soldiers marked where they had been using the popular cartoon.

Postage is her group’s biggest expense, about $5,000 a year. Donations from individuals, the Disabled American Veterans, Oak Lawn VFW Post 5220 and its auxiliary, and proceeds from local fundraisers help Connelly cover mailing costs.

Connelly “is following local men and women of the military and making sure they know they are close to our hearts,” said Courtney Hedderman, AARP Illinois associate state director.

She organized a 2014 AARP packing event for Mrs. Jacky’s Soldiers.

In September, Connelly, an AARP member for 15 years, was featured on the AARP Illinois Creating the Good radio program. It’s accessible at bitly.com/CreatingtheGood.

To donate or volunteer, contact Connelly at mrsjsoldiers@gmail.com.

Lisa Bertagnoli is a writer living in Chicago.

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