Parcels of plenty

Christopher High School ninth-grade student David Rodriguez

After briefly apologizing for his messy handwriting, Kyle Kwong
began his letter to a U.S. soldier by explaining his duties as
class treasurer.
After briefly apologizing for his messy handwriting, Kyle Kwong began his letter to a U.S. soldier by explaining his duties as class treasurer.

“I basically keep track of what money goes in and out of our school,” wrote Kwong, a sophomore at Christopher High School.

“Sadly, I rarely ever get to handle money, but that’s OK!”

Kwong is one of 1,075 Christopher High students and teachers from English classes who participated in a letter writing campaign for Operation Interdependence, a civilian-to-military delivery system that sends quart-sized bags filled with treats, toiletries and handwritten letters to troops stationed overseas in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait.

Their efforts was a schoolwide assignment of all Christopher High’s English classes.

The program was launched in 2001 by retired Chief Warrant Officer Albert R. Renteria, who saw the need for an efficient method of distributing donated care packages to soldiers – without turning an unnecessary number of deployed forces into delivery middlemen – during a tour of duty in the Gulf War.

His opus was Operation Interdependence: A streamlined system connecting civilians to soldiers directly through the U.S. Postal Service.

Operation Interdependence has been active in Gilroy for eight years. Suzie Kugler, manager for the local chapter, said volunteers facilitate everything – from promotion, to packaging and postage. Commanding officers need only provide addresses, she said. The nonprofit organization is completely dependent on donations.

“We’ve gone through months where we’ve had nothing,” said Kugler, but added community generosity and support has been equally abundant – Christopher High being no exception. Kugler said she was amazed by students’ patriotism and their receptiveness to participating.

The drive portion of the event started Nov. 1, and ended Wednesday.

Kugler and Karen Humber, a special education teacher from Luigi Aprea Elementary who got involved with the program six years ago after her son joined the Marines, gave back-to-back presentations Oct. 29 to Christopher High students. They were also joined by special guest Sgt. Chad Janssen, a 26-year-old from Washington state who’s currently posted at the Gilroy Recruiting Station.

“Getting stuff from other people who want to take the time to get to know us or make us smile is really refreshing,” said Janssen.

With two Iraq tours under his belt, it’s been a year and a half since Janssen’s last deployment. He still remembers an 8-year-old boy from Nevada named Chris, who he conversed by mail about a dozen times.

“He’d tell me about his new puppy … what he got for Christmas,” Janssen recalled.

Common comforts for some, but not for a soldier stationed in the middle of a foreign desert, some 6,000 miles away from home.

It felt good to know there were people thinking about him, Janssen said, even if it was a child who had only recently learned how to tie his shoes. Not everyone hears from family or friends on a regular basis.

“The soldiers read, and re-read those letters,” said Kugler. “Some of them, that’s the only letter they’ll get. A lot of people don’t have anyone at home … they’re just enamored with the letters.”

A sampling of four letters compiled by Christopher pupils revealed subject matter surpassing small talk. Rather than being reserved or unfamiliar, students let standard formality cede to honest, inquisitive and humorous tones. Save for the introduction of names, it’s as if one concerned friend were reaching out to another.

“You may, or may not, know this, but Gilroy, CA, is the garlic capital of the world,” wrote sophomore Jenni Sigl. “We grow garlic. We sell garlic. We eat garlic. And unfortunately, some say that we smell like garlic.”

“How about you?” wrote Kwong. “What do you like to do? What activities were you involved in when you were in high school? Do you like pie?”

Students got creative with their format, incorporating elements such as rap songs, poetry, paintings, journal entries, Bible verses, drawings, CDs and origami.

They tapped into personal subjects including family deaths, personal struggles and experiences that changed their lives. They were frank and insightful – with a recipient they’ll probably never meet.

“I am a firm believer that trials make us stronger and better people,” wrote Sigl. “Though you probably hear ‘Thank you’ so often that it becomes a cliche, know that my words and gratitude are true.”

Sigl said the process got her thinking about what it would be like to be miles away from the people she loved, and was surprised at how much she had to say.

Sophomore Alyssa Dorn, who composed her letter like a journal entry, tried to visualize herself in the soldier’s place and think about what she’d want to hear.

Buzz about the Giants winning the World Series, perhaps.

“I don’t like to be left out of the loop,” said Dorn.

The writing campaign came to a head when Associated Student Body students, staff and community gathered for Packing Night at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Christopher High. Volunteers funneled in one door and out the other, forming a snakelike assembly line as they filed past tables stuffing plastic baggies full of cards, candy, gum, popcorn, socks, tea, hot cocoa and toiletries. The room where donated goods had temporarily been stored – at one point stashed to the brim – was expeditiously emptied.

Humber, who was present at the event, paused for a moment amidst the sea of cheerleaders and ASB members running back and fort with bins and boxes in their arms. Somewhere in the background, Michael Jackson and Journey emanated from a stereo.

“One letter touches so many lives,” said Humber, pointing out army wives will often write thank you notes.

“As teachers, our job is to put purpose to the work,” said Paul Winslow, English teacher and department chair at Christopher High.

“This is an assignment with purpose. It gives it life.”

Winslow said some students brought up the fact they didn’t agree with war.

“You’re writing a letter to another human being,” he responded. “And that’s how you need to think about it. You’re writing because it’s the right thing to do. This person is away from their family.”

He told them character is outside the realm of any political dogma.

“I hope that, wherever you are and whatever you are doing, you are well and safe,” Kwong wrote in his conclusion.

“I am honored to have been able to write a letter to someone who has done so much for our country.”

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