Hugs for Heroes gives soldiers sweet support
By Anna Katherine Clemmons
Standing in the front hall of her home, Mireille Manzone gestures toward several piles of boxes with address labels marked for Kuwait and Fallujah.
“They’re Valentine care packages,” said Manzone, a tall, thin teenager with curly blonde hair that falls below her shoulders. “We had elementary kids from St. Joseph’s School in Needham make Valentines for the troops, and they are so cute. We’re sending Valentines and candy hearts along with the regular items we put in.”
These boxes are the latest product of Manzone’s Hugs for Heroes program, an outreach effort she began last summer to send overseas military personnel a flavor of home.
Last July, while attending the Young America’s Foundation conference in Washington, D.C., Manzone heard retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Scott Rutter talk about the troops fighting in Iraq. “He was the most inspiring speaker I’ve ever heard – he said that any little thing we could do for the troops would help,” said Manzone, 17.
Returning from D.C. a week later, Manzone decided to take action. After talking with a friend in her taekwondo class whose son, a Marine, had recently returned from Iraq, as well as a friend whose Army officer cousin was stationed outside Baghdad, Manzone realized she had ties to two different units.
She wanted to reach out to both of them.
Lots of thanks
She created Hugs for Heroes, naming the program to describe her emotion toward the troops. “All of them are heroes and it probably sounds like of corny, but you just want to hug them and thank them when you see them,” Manzone said.
Next came the biggest challenge: raising the funds to buy the materials. “I took up collections from school, my church and my neighborhood,” Manzone said. “Everyone was very supportive and from there, I sent out more e-mails and started the Web site, www.hugsforheroes.com, to get the word out.”
At times, she found the word spread without her help. During a special assembly at her high school, Noble and Greenough, one of the teachers asked to speak after Mireille’s endorsement of Hugs for Heroes.
Standing before the students, he told them he knew how it felt to be fighting overseas and the terrible loneliness soldiers often experience. He had fought in Vietnam and had rarely, if ever, gotten mail.
“He told us it would mean so, so much to them and asked everyone to help. Everyone was practically crying after that,” Manzone said.
Lots of dough
By October, Manzone had raised hundreds of dollars and received enough baked goods to fill several sweet shops. On Nov. 27, she mailed the first shipment – almost 82 pounds of baked goods and a few pairs of socks.
Needham’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2489, Natick’s VFW Post 1274, the Natick’s Veterans Council and the Framingham Veterans Council gave Manzone $300 toward postage, covering most of the mailing costs.
“I gave the post office a presentation and told them what I was doing,” Manzone said. “Originally they told me they could only give maybe $100, but they liked the idea so much that they ended up giving a lot more.”
On Dec. 1, Manzone mailed 20 more boxes filled with close to 200 pounds of various items. Venturing beyond brownies, Manzone wanted to include practical necessities as well.
“One of the mothers of a soldier stationed abroad sent me a Web site that lists what troops are requesting. I also asked soldiers who had come back what they liked to get a good idea,” Manzone said.
Durable items such as beef jerky, candy, socks, gum, baby wipes, tissues, mints and hand lotion were requested, along with homemade brownies and cookies.
Razors and shaving cream were not included, Manzone explained, because they often take longer to clear customs. “We wanted items that would get through fast,” Manzone said.
And how do those cookies and brownies stay chewy-delicious on their journey overseas? It’s an unusual process, as Manzone explained. First, the brownies are packaged in wax paper and placed in sealable plastic bags. Then the bags are put in a box with a piece of bread inside to preserve the moisture. Finally, the boxes with the baked goods are included in the larger care packages.
The first two shipments reached the troops safely, and several sent letters to Manzone to express their gratitude.
“One guy talked about how he literally lived off the baked goods for two weeks, because they didn’t have enough food,” Manzone said. “It really is amazing to read these letters and what they are going through.”
Inspired by the soldiers’ words, Manzone is working to spread her outreach efforts. Her next project is helping her older sister Mariel, a sophomore at Georgetown University, start a Hugs chapter in Washington.
“I want this to be as far-reaching as possible so the troops can get the things they need,” Manzone said.
She also plans another shipment to go to a third unit stationed near Afghanistan.
When asked about whether she supported the United States’ decision to send troops to Iraq, Manzone paused before answering. “I do think it was the right decision,” Manzone said. “But what I love about Hugs for Heroes is whether you think the war is right or wrong, you have to support what they’re doing. A lot of soldiers are hardly older than me, but they’re over there risking their lives.
“And until those soldiers come home, I’m going to keep this up.”