CHATHAM – In 2002, Polly Goddard's nephew Will was stationed in Kuwait with the U.S. Army awaiting the start of the Iraq war. His brother, Parker, then 13, was looking for a way to boost Will's spirits, and after a chat with his aunt, an idea was born that has become a heartfelt tradition.
As Goddard explained, Parker had been assigned a school service project but didn't have a clue what would work. He and his aunt decided to put together a small fundraiser and send boxes of holiday goodies to Will and his fellow troops. In the days before social media and smart phones, Goddard relied on the power of email to get the word out, figuring they'd raise around $100.
“We ended up raising $600,” Goddard said. “So Parker and I went to Walmart and loaded cart after cart with holiday stuff, puzzles, games and toys.”
Then they baked dozens of cookies and loaded everything into boxes for Will and his fellow soldiers. Goddard said when the packages arrived, Will was on patrol, eventually arriving back at his barracks to find his bunk hidden beneath a pile of boxes. Though communication then was slower due to lesser technology, eventually Goddard learned that the delivery was a hit.
A few years later, when Parker turned 18, he, too, joined the Army – something of a family tradition given that Goddard's father and brother are both veterans, and a number of her nieces and nephews have served or are currently serving.
Like his brother, Parker was also deployed to Iraq, inspiring Goddard to rejuvenate the sending of boxes, though not quite on the same scale as in the past. Nine years ago, however, that changed. During a conversation with friends at St. Martin's Masonic Lodge in Chatham, Goddard mentioned the donations and asked if the lodge might want to pitch in.
For the first two years, the lodge co-funded the costs of shopping for items and sending the packages overseas. Upon seeing how successful the program was, St. Martin's opted to fund it fully. Unfortunately, much of the lodge's funding came from the balloon sales at Chatham Band concerts.
“That was a huge fundraiser for the lodge and so for that to get nixed by the town, while we understand the concerns, was a huge hit to the fundraising budget in the lodge,” Goddard said.
Sometimes when the money is tight, Goddard has been known to toss in a few dollars of her own. But this year the program got a lift when another lodge near Boston gave St. Martin's a donation to help supplement the Treats for Troops program. Goddard said the funds not only helped with the purchases of goodies, but also to defray the costs of shipping boxes overseas, which can be prohibitively expensive.
To find benefactors stationed overseas for the holidays, Goddard has turned to friends and colleagues, as well as social media. When there weren't any one year, she decided to focus on folks at the Veteran's Hospital in West Roxbury and put together 50 stockings filled with all manner of treats.
“It was great and the activities director up there loved it,” Goddard said. “You get to sit and talk to these guys. Sometimes we're the only visitors they get the entire time they're in the hospital, and for some it was the only gift they would get. For some of them it's actually kind of a gift to be in the hospital because they're warm and dry and fed.”
Goddard said the gifts aren't anything overly pricey, but do the job of lifting spirits.
“We don't do anything fancy,” she said. “I go to the dollar store and get these holiday mugs, word search books, and some fun little holiday things. They love the silly headbands and flashing necklaces. It's just silly stuff, but I always get them a mug because when they check out they can take it and remember that someone cared.”
This season, among with the boxes and bags of fun items were more than 50 dozen cookies that Goddard baked and decorated with a team of dedicated helpers, primarily hand-decorated sugar cutouts, though this year Goddard added some chocolate chip. To help with the baking and decorating, Goddard holds a decorating day during Thanksgiving weekend that's open to the public.
Thanks to a Second Lieutenant in the Army, who provided a wish list with personal requests, Goddard and her crew were able to put together boxes for 21 soldiers in which everybody got at least one item from their list.
To further enhance the bags for veterans and boxes for troops, Goddard includes cards made by students at Harwich Elementary School.
“They are hilarious and sweet, and very touching,” Goddard said. “Some of them you read and you just cry.”
Goddard said that while veterans and troops love the goodies, it's the cards that really warm their souls.
“When we go into the hospital, we get to see them,” Goddard said. “They'll read them and you know it's going somewhere special.”
While some might marvel at Goddard's determination to keep her annual project afloat, what with the fundraising, baking, packing, and shipping, but Goddard couldn't imagine a holiday without it.
“Veterans get me because they have signed on the line to do something that most people would never do. They put themselves at risk from a variety of things, not just warfare. It's amazing,” she said. “For me even to brighten up their day a little bit is a nice thing.”