Hereford Elementary School students sort items collected from the community, which will be sent to service men and women serving in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Left to right are Zach Gehman, Connor Gehman, Alex Long and Ava Long.
As you can see by the overflowing red, white and blue boxes stationed outside her office at Hereford Elementary School, Laura Wismer is a woman on a mission. And this year that mission is connecting a school, a soccer team and a local soldier serving overseas.
Wismer, a busy school nurse, decided last year she wanted to do her part to send U.S. military troops some Christmas cheer. Thanks to Red Hill resident Annette Needs, she was introduced to the Adopt-A-Soldier program, which partners Americans with soldiers stationed overseas.
Through that organization, the school’s staff and students rallied to send supplies, cards and letters to an entire platoon.
“For so many of them to be far away from family and friends, especially around the holidays, my heart goes out to them. Sending them cards, letters and supplies or tokens from home is the least that I can do,” Wismer said.
This year, however, the task hit a little closer to home.
A family friend, Needs’ son Doug, a 2012 Upper Perkiomen High School grad, is serving overseas through Operation Enduring Freedom. So this month, Wismer and Hereford Elementary surprised Annette Needs with a supply drive to benefit Pvt. F.C. Douglas Needs and his fellow soldiers.
A cavalry scout in the U.S. Army, the 19-year-old was deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, late last month. It was hard for his mom, who said this Christmas will be especially difficult without him.
“It doesn’t put you in the best of moods,” Needs said. “But when you’re a military family, you accept this for what it is. Knowing this is what he wanted, we knew it could happen…We just can’t wait to celebrate when he gets home.”
Doug Needs, who was able to get leave for Christmas last year, will be spending this holiday working 14-hour shifts in balmy temperatures. As that country has denied U.S. cell phone service providers from coming in, and Skype access is not available, communication is scarce, said his mom.
“You just send a[n] e-mail message and wait. When you get a call or a message, everything stops,” she explained.
But thanks to Wismer, Doug Needs should be feeling a lot of love from his community this Christmas. Staff and students at Hereford were recently asked to send in cards, letters and drawings. At the school’s holiday bazaar Nov. 9, a table was set up for kids to draw pictures, write letters and sign donated cards.
Collection boxes at the bazaar and inside the school netted hundreds of supplies like toiletries, snacks and games.
Wismer said senior citizens from The Open Link got in on the action and were “thrilled to donate many boxes and bags to the cause, especially knowing that they were going to one of our own.”
While she has collected everything from shaving cream and sunscreen to dried fruits and playing cards, Wismer said some of the most precious cargo may be the heartfelt drawings and notes of thanks from the elementary school students, staff and members of the community.
“I know he and his troop will truly appreciate the packages, cards and letters. He is a courageous young man who is wise beyond his years,” she said of Needs, who helped coach her daughter through the Valley Strikers U-14 girls soccer team. “The sacrifices that our military members and their families make for our country are to be commended. I know I could never do what they do to keep us safe and allow us the freedoms that so many people take for granted.”
Annette Needs, who admitted to sneaking in to the Hereford Bazaar to see the work being done for her son, said he was recently overjoyed to find out she was shipping him an old soccer ball (troops can’t take items home again with them) and needle. She said “soccer was his life,” as he played since he was 3 years old.
In fact, the hope is some of the Valley Strikers will be able to help pack up the boxes later this week.
“I think he’s going to be shocked at how much they collected. I think he thinks he’s getting a box. He’s going to be quite surprised, and happy,” she said.
Wismer noted she hopes the tradition becomes an annual one at Hereford. For next year she said they may reach out to another 2012 Upper Perkiomen grad, Mark Ziegenfuse, who recently began basic training with the U.S. Marines.
Regardless of who she and Hereford Elementary support, their motivation is paramount.
“If we give our service men and women a little bit of comfort from home then I am all for it. It pales in comparison to what they do for us on a daily basis,” she said.
Wismer is currently collecting supplies and funds to mail the packages to Needs and his troop. She is accepting donations through Monday at the school. For more information, or to donate, please call 215-679-4151.