Mary Beth Gunnerson made an observation and took action. The reaction will make for some special comfort from home for servicemen and women in harm’s way in Afghanistan.
Gunnerson, from Destin, attended the packing party during last year’s annual Semper Fi Sisters Beach Blast in Port St. Joe. During the packing party, held last year in the Centennial Building, the Sisters – wives, grandmothers, sisters, aunts of deployed military personnel – assembled care packages for troops in war zones.
From a first year when 12 women packed 36 boxes to 24 packing 300 boxes the next year to 52 packing more than 700 boxes last year, the effort has grown exponentially.
This year the goal is 1,000 “Boxes of Love.”
“I came home so tired,” Gunnerson said with a chuckle. “But I was so inspired. I had such a good time.
“The only thing we all had in common is a fierce, profound and protective love of our servicemen and women. Those are the ties that bind.”
Gunnerson, who had been introduced to Semper Fi Sisters during a banquet for mothers of deployed soldiers, noticed that while two long lines were devoted to packing boxes with a masculine touch for the servicemen, the “powder puff” line packing for servicewomen was a single line and not nearly as long as the other two.
Gunnerson, co-owner with her husband of Sporty Lady, a women’s sportswear and apparel shop in Destin, came up with a brainstorm while en route to a trade show in Miami.
She wondered if she brought a flyer about Semper Fi Sisters and their Beach Blast in Port St. Joe – this year’s begins Oct. 17 – to each of her appointments, if vendors would be willing to ship her any leftover giveaway items after the trade show season was over.
Gunnerson told each vendor she would be back in touch and anything each vendor had left, she would gladly take.
She called and had a flyer emailed to her which she printed at a help kiosk at the Miami trade show. She took on all appointments.
“I have been absolutely stunned by the response,” Gunnerson said. “I’ve gotten monetary donations, not only from corporate offices, but from regional offices of the same companies. One vendor sent merchandise that, wholesale, is worth about $7,000.
“This industry has just responded.”
Literally from all over the world as Gunnerson received pens, hats and visors from a vendor in Germany and merchandise from Australia.
Lip balms, mini-pedicure kits, boutique shirts, all, Gunnerson noted, arriving shipped in flat boxes to allow for easy packing in the care boxes.
A retailer in Manhattan, New York, sent boxes of tote bags and gift items.
“I figured I met end up with a box of junk, but I have received a lot of great stuff,” Gunnerson said. “Even people I have not yet done business with sent checks.
“Everyone in this country, regardless of political viewpoint, wants to help the military. They just need a vehicle. It’s all about letting the servicemen and women know that the average citizen has not forgotten they are there and why they are there.”
Even Gunnerson’s dentist joined the fray. When she mentioned what she was doing and why, Gunnerson said he later produced 200 kits, complete with toothbrush, paste and floss.
Adele Armitage is the director of the Ecumenical Choir of Walton County, of which Gunnerson is also a member. The choir puts on several community performances each year to raise money for charity. A Marine mom introduced the group to Semper Fi Sisters.
Last year, the group did a concert for the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and donated the money to help defray shipping costs for the Semper Fi Sisters care packages.
Gunnerson and Armitage began, as Armitage put it, burning up the internet with ideas about getting more involved in the Semper Fi Sisters.
Armitage didn’t stop at the concert. She broached the county Ministerial Association about becoming involved and expects to hear back soon.
“Hopefully all the area churches will be stepping up and donating,” Armitage said.
In addition, Armitage got her chorus class at South Walton High School involved. One motivation, she said, was telling her kids that this would be a way to raise their profile, apply something of a “cool” sheen to the group.
Armitage and her kids decorated boxes in holiday colors and distributed them throughout the school, igniting something of a challenge to all classes to see who could bring in the most items to send to troops. They wanted to provide a touch of home and the principal at the high school jumped on board the effort.
“The kids are pretty excited,” Armitage said. “I think it’s important for the kids not to be only part of themselves. They need to look beyond themselves to the world around them.”
Armitage and Gunnerson will be in Port St. Joe – along with 75 Sisters from 23 states who have registered to attend this year’s Beach Blast – next month with their donated items, applying some Forgotten Coast love to the Boxes of Love to be sent.
As a Marine mom, Gunnerson understands what the Beach Blast – in effect a four-day Girls Night Out break from the homefront of war – provides to the women, its value to those clinging to normalcy when little of life is normal with a loved one overseas in a war zone.
“I am so looking forward to it,” Gunnerson said. “It’s nice. We are all at different stages of having a need for support. If they are about to come home, you are happy. If they are just entering boot camp, you are sad.
“It’s nice to have a group of women who know what you are going through.”
If you would like to donate an item or money for shipping to the Semper Fi Sisters’ effort to pack 1,000 “Boxes of Love” to troops overseas, please visit www.semperfisisters.com.