The good vibes were infectious Wednesday night inside the dining commons at Christopher High School. Roughly 300 students were smiling, pop music streamed from a stereo and a sea of hands stuffed thousands of goodies into plastic baggies – a tangible gesture that will find its way to U.S. soldiers stationed far, far away from home.
This is the second year CHS has held its annual drive to support Operation Interdependence, a civilian-to-military delivery system that sends quart-sized bags filled with treats, toiletries and handwritten letters to U.S. troops overseas in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait. Gilroy’s local chapter has been active for nine years and is 100 percent volunteer run.
The letter-writing campaign is a mandatory assignment for students in CHS English classes, who last year (along with teachers) composed approximately 1,075 handwritten letters to go inside the goody bags.
This year, local O.I. Chapter Manager Suzie Kugler counted around 1,400 letters. The tally differential reflects higher enrollment at CHS; this is the first year the new high school has students in all four grades.
At the end of the drive Wednesday night, Kugler had enough supplies to fill around 5,000 bags; an increase from last year’s drive by about 1,000, Kugler estimated.
“Gilroy is way on top of it,” she said. “Gilroy has just been incredibly patriotic.”
At the beginning of the drive in early February, CHS students – such as junior Samantha Pew, 16, who went crazy at a local dollar store and spent $400 of her own money, started bringing in donations.
CHS also reached out to the community. The community did not disappoint.
“If we told businesses a month in advance, we probably would have had way more stuff,” said junior Cameron Eredia, 17.
Along with Eredia’s friend and fellow Associated Student Body member, David Caddell, 17, the pair spent an entire Sunday reaching out in person to local restaurants and stores. They returned with a cache of donations from a gamut of givers including Stubby’s Sports Bar & Grill, Lavender Luxury Spa, the Sunglass Hut, Costco, Jelly Belly, Motel 6, Johnny Carino’s Italian Restaurant, Applebee’s, Famous Dave’s BBQ and many more. That’s in addition to other donors who dropped off goods, such as local doctors, a vendor for Eclipse Gum, an employee from the Quality Inn, Gilroy residents, anonymous individuals … the list goes on.
The drive is organized and largely attended by ASB students, although athletes, teachers, students in various clubs and community members show up to lend a hand.
Wednesday’s turnout included Gilroyans Mike and Aggie Ternasky, both 67. The husband and wife said they read about Operation Interdependence in the Dispatch and wanted to get involved.
“Anything that shows a contribution to our troops is beneficial. It shows that we don’t forget them,” said Mike. “Working with the kids and seeing the kids participate in this is a wonderful thing.”
The need is ongoing, however. Kugler and her volunteers need at least 1,000 handwritten letters and enough items to fill 1,000 bags on a monthly basis.
Operation Interdependence was launched in 2011 during a tour of duty in the Gulf War 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. His brainchild was Operation Interdependence: A streamlined system connecting civilians to soldiers directly through the U.S. Postal Service. Volunteers facilitate everything – from promotion, to packaging and postage. O.I. is a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization completely dependent on donations; commanding officers need only provide addresses.
“It means a lot, because we don’t have a 7-Eleven down the street,” said Army Staff Sgt. Chad Janssen, who remembers receiving care packages during his two deployments in Iraq in 2005 and 2008.
Janssen is currently posted at the Gilroy Recruiting Station. He assisted with O.I. alongside students and staff Wednesday night.
“It’s great to see the community involved like this,” he said. “It’s awesome to have people out there thinking about us and supporting us.”
Video coming soon.
• A 501 (c)(3) nonprofit civilian-to-military delivery system that sends quart-sized bags filled with treats, toiletries and letters to troops stationed overseas. Christopher High School hosts an O.I. drive annually.
• The goal is to send 1,000 letters and baggies of supplies overseas each month.
• To make a donation, visit the O.I. chapter headquarters in Gilroy between 3:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Tuesdays at 8401 Church St. on the corner of Welburn Avenue. If you visit during off-hours, letters can be dropped off through a slot. If you have a large donation that you would like to drop off in person, call O.I. Site Manger Suzie Kugler at (408) 847-5906.
• Suggested items to donate: (Food) Individually packaged tea, cocoa, powdered drink mixes, single serving sized cookies, trail mix, Corn Nuts, small packs of almonds, peanuts, sunflower seeds, gum (Eclipse is a favorite), hard candy (sealed, no twists), microwave popcorn, granola bars, Rice Krispie Treats, beef jerky. (Supplies) travel-size shampoo, conditioner, gel, lotions, disposable razors, small toothpaste, dental floss, toothbrushes (sealed), sunscreen, bug repellent (small tube, non-aerosol), socks, Odor Eaters for boots, eye drops, Chapstick (with seals), hand sanitizer (small container), moist towelettes, baby wipes, prepaid international phone cards, decks of playing cards and small games.