Susan Fisher’s ink-black eyes reddened with tears as she described her two nephews who are deployed overseas. “One nephew is my blood nephew,” she said, “and the other, I’m like his other mom, especially after his real mom passed away a year ago.”
Joe, who’s on his fourth deployment to Afghanistan, and Kristopher, who will celebrate his 27th birthday in Afghanistan on November 27, are about to receive special care packages filled with snacks, magazines, pens, cards, and other personalized goodies from Their Angels, a volunteer-run military support group based in Richmond.
On the first Saturday in November, like every first Saturday of the month, more than 60 volunteers scurried from table to table at the Hilltop Church of Christ to put together 500 smaller care packages, or “C-rations,” stuffed with donated treats and handwritten letters to send to soldiers in active duty abroad. Joe and Kristopher got special attention this time per the request of their aunt.
“I can’t financially put a box together,” Fisher said. “The fact that Their Angels does it…” Her voice trembled. “You just don’t know what it means.”
When Marva Lyons’ son James first joined the Marines eight years ago, she began sending him gifts in the mail – cookies, notes, tokens of a mother’s love. But while her son appreciated them, he told Lyons that the other Marines around him weren’t receiving that kind of support from home.
“When he came home to visit, he’d say, ‘Can you expand what you’re doing?’” Lyons said. “That’s how it grew.”
As a mother with a son in combat, “I was so needy to keep myself busy,” she said, nodding at the dozens of volunteers, young and old, who were busily stuffing baggies at a long table of snacks, mints, and toiletries. “That was an easy request.”
At the time, Lyons couldn’t find any Richmond-based organizations that supported the troops. She formed a partnership with Operation Interdependence, a national nonprofit group that helps civilians donate goods to troops, military families, and veterans.
Eight years later, Their Angels has sent nearly 30,000 packages through Operation Interdependence and built a large community of military families and other volunteers from across the Bay Area. Their Angels bumps up the number of packages from 500 to 1,500 in February and December for “Operation Valentine” and “Operation Christmas Card,” often soliciting handwritten cards from elementary schools or other groups. This month, Lyons passed around a signup sheet for volunteers interested in bringing homemade cookies for the December packages (without nuts, in case any of the recipients have allergies).
Extra donations that don’t make it into the packages get donated to the USO in Afghanistan, or in San Francisco, San Jose, or at Travis Air Force Base, said Donna Black, a member of Their Angels’ Board of Directors and a volunteer since 2005. Some donations that the group can’t use – candy that will melt, for instance – is donated to VA hospitals. “We’ve also made lap blankets and wheelchair bags,” said Black. The Hilltop Church holds onto leftover donations for future events or to offer to other military-related groups. “We try to use everything that’s donated and not waste anything.”
And it’s not just mothers supporting sons – service members or entire combat units can contact Their Angels through their website and ask for supplies. “Like, ‘We’re in very tight quarters in a tent, everyone’s very sick with a cold or flu, can you send medicine or cough drops?’” Black said. “They’ll get cases of them from us.”
Black heard about Their Angels through a friend whose son was deployed, and then her own son joined the Marines and did four tours in combat – two in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. He was part of a CH-53 helicopter crew that flew in materials and supplies, fulfilling multiple roles, she said, including EMT and aerial technician.
“It was tough,” she said. “And this organization was just phenomenal. It was my survival to have people I could talk to and relate to. I’d hate to miss one of these events.”
Today, Black’s son is back in California, attending the Alameda County Sheriff’s Academy, but she still plays an active role with Their Angels. “This is a phenomenal group of people with strong bonds, supporting each other in a time of need,” Black said. Regardless of the concern, “we all lean on each other.”
Kathy Casares, whose son Cody joined the Marine Corps two weeks out of high school in 2009 and heads to Afghanistan for seven months on November 12, said she will never miss a monthly packing event, either.
“This helps me feel connected,” Casares said. “I’m doing something. I’m so grateful for Their Angels – it feels like a family.”
Beth and Steve Stewart sat in the tiny front room of the Hilltop Church, separate from the main team, stuffing the bigger boxes for this month’s handful of honored soldiers, including the ones for Susan Fisher’s nephews, Joe and Kristopher. Piles of donations tumbled all over the place – comic books, Sports Illustrated magazines, razors, toothbrushes, bottles of hand sanitizer, crackers, mints, bubbles, and bags of greeting cards and letters.
Damon Deaver, who lives in Brentwood and will start boot camp for the Marine Corps in January, handed Beth Stewart a plastic bag of packaged Oreos across the piles. “Do I give these to you?”
“Yes!” Stewart said, glancing around at the piles growing around her, then heaving a sigh. “Stuff just keeps coming! That’s how it is.”
Damon Deaver’s grandmother, Sharon Deaver, stepped in the doorway and surveyed the scene. “Ah, you can’t fit it all in?” she joked. “I just don’t understand that.”
Beth Stewart’s husband, Steve Stewart, a retired teacher, read aloud from letters he snagged from the piles – many of them from children or visitors to the Their Angels table at Richmond’s Home Front Festival in October. “Dear hero,” Stewart read, “I’m so happy to be able to help you.” He rifled through another box and held up a colored-pencil drawing by an elementary school student, and then, “Look! This one has a big kiss on it!”
The Stewarts’ son is now stationed at Fort Irwin, by Barstow. When he was abroad, “He loved the packages,” Steve Stewart said, “especially the notes.”
And when soldiers return to California and show up at a Their Angels event, they get showered with just as much love. “The only time I’ve seen him cry in my life is when he came home one time, and Marva hugged him and told him what a great guy he was,” Stewart said.
Although a portion of the packages Their Angels sends each month are sent to volunteers’ family members, most are sent to members of the military that no one knows. The handwritten letters and cards are addressed with “Dear hero” or some variation and offer words of encouragement that could apply to anyone on active duty. When the cards are sent during a holiday, writers are discouraged from writing something too religious, since “these are going to people of all religions,” said Susie Futak, who serves on the Their Angels Board of Directors and manages the flow of greeting cards and letters.
“What I seem to hear the most from them, along with ‘Thank you,’” said Marva Lyons, “is how pleased they are to receive something from someone who doesn’t know them. ‘Thank you for remembering us,’ they’ll say.”
Not everyone who volunteers with Their Angels has a family member in the military. Volunteers for the November packing day came from all over the Bay Area. Some came to support someone – or the memory of someone. Many just came for the love of giving.
“We make it a priority,” said Juji Mayne, who brought her husband and her seven-year-old son, Grayson, from San Rafael. She said she heard about Their Angels through seeing Marva Lyons interviewed on TV. “I was so impressed with her thoughtfulness and kindness that I called, and then came to that first packing day, and I’ve been coming ever since,” she said. “War is terrible no matter what side. We can all do something to make things better. It warms my heart to know people who care so much about others who they may never meet.”
Sharon Deaver, whose son completed his tour with the Army, but whose grandson is about to start, was unequivocal about her involvement with Their Angels. “I can’t stay away,” she said. “It gets a hold of your heart.”