By Bill Leukhardt The Hartford Courant
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Karen Cote is the founder of "Hero Boxes", which this year has collected more than 6,000 pounds of donated items. More than 60 volunteers have pitched in since Nov. 1 to collect donations, sort them and package them in boxes to be mailed to soldiers.
In 2015, Karen Cote sent a care package to her soldier son, who was stationed in Kuwait. That one box became the catalyst for Cote's nonprofit group that, three years later, is sending 400 holiday packages to soldiers in desert outposts in Iraq and Afghanistan this month.
Cote said the box she sent to her son Nick's forlorn outpost was so appreciated by his unit that she decided to keep sending more out.
"I had no idea it would grow so much," Cote said. "It's all because of people being so generous with donations and time."
Her decision resulted in Hero Boxes, a registered nonprofit that this year collected more than 6,000 pounds of donated items. More that 60 volunteers have pitched in since Nov. 1 to collect donations, sort them and package them in boxes to be mailed.
"The Berlin community really came out to support the troops this year with donations of items needed and wanted by our deployed troops, plus the backing for paying for shipping the packages," said Peter Galgano, a Vietnam Marine veteran who serves on the town's Veterans Commission.
Thanksgiving night is the final public-invited work session to finish the 400 boxes for this year's holiday mailing. It's at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in New Britain, 41 Veterans Dr., a new location because Hero Boxes outgrew the hall it used to use in Berlin.
Numbers tell that story. The first year the group sent about 100 boxes. Last year they mailed 250 packages. This year, the number is 400, weighing more than three tons of candy, toiletries, socks and sundries for troops miles from a base or store. All items are donated, collected from boxes the charity puts up across the region beginning Nov. 1.
Each box contains hard-to-get necessities and treats considered luxuries by troop posted miles away from any base or other places they could buy items like soap, black socks, packs of cookies, disposable razors, sunscreen, or playing cards.
So many items were donated that the group now has a surplus that will be stored and used next year. Cote said there likely will be spring and fall mailings to move as much as possible.
It'll cost about $14,000 to mail all 400 boxes. That expense was covered by donations, too. The biggest contribution was the $10,000 a Groton man gave from a family trust fund created to help others.
"I'm just overwhelmed by how generous people are," Cote said. "So many people donate items and their time. They make this all possible. It's not about me. It's about them."
Caitlan Williams of Berlin was stationed in Iraq for eight months in 2001 with her Army unit. She volunteered to pack boxes with the troop she now helps lead: a local Girl Scout troop.
The scouts raised money to buy 400 black short stocking hats, or beanies, to ship off. The hat is a mercy in a desert night when temperatures turn cold, Williams said.
"You wouldn't think you'd need a beanie in the desert but the nights get really cold," Cote said. "The hats also protect your head in day from sun and sand."
The blowing sand that gets into everything, Williams said. It irritates, grinds and destroys clothing and equipment. Socks and other gear wears out quickly.
"It's heartwarming for people to do this," Williams said.
Cliff Cote, Karen's husband and a U.S. Air Force veteran, said the generosity toward the soldiers is very different than the cool reception he said he and other returning Vietnam veterans had in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
"A Vietnam veteran who came here and saw this put his head down and cried like a baby because he was so moved by people doing this, compared to what it was like when we came back," Cliff Cote said. "We don't want that ever to happen again."