Operation Santa kicks into full swing

MARIETTA – Christmas tunes and animated chatter floated upward from the basement of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5108 in Marietta Wednesday afternoon.

Down below, a small group of volunteers organized tall piles of candy, gum, snacks, clothing and other small treats.

The items have a long trip ahead of them.

After being stuffed into hundreds upon hundreds of stockings, the treats will make their way overseas-a gift for Marines serving abroad.

“The idea is just to help bring some Christmas cheer to our deployed troops,” said Dawn Cunningham, of Marietta, a member of the Parkersburg RSS Marine Moms.

The nationwide program, dubbed Operation Santa, began in 2004. Started by only two Marine moms in Oregon, the program has grown into a nationwide campaign, with organizers in 24 states.

Lisa Workman, West Virginia state project coordinator for the Marine Corps Family Foundation, has been helping organize the local campaign for six years and every year volunteers here and throughout West Virginia send out more than 900 stockings.

Filled with things that will hopefully remind the soldiers of home-chips, beef jerky, trail mix, granola bars, hand warmers, socks, candy and more-the stockings serve as a message to the Marines that they are missed and appreciated, said Workman.

“They’re just really excited that someone remembered them at Christmas,” she said.

Even the stockings themselves are a testament to the care put into the project. Volunteers work year round sewing the hundreds of stockings, said Workman.

The group makes sure that every local Marine and his or her platoon receives a stocking. Workman also has a list of Marines who do not receive mail from home and the group tries to ensure they all get a stocking as well, she said.

“Some of these people don’t have any family to send them things,” she said.

Helping stuff stockings with his 2-year-old daughter Zoey was Parkersburg Marine Justin Williamson, 27.

Williamson, who served for nearly nine years as a Marine, recalled that while serving in Iraq, the days all seemed to blend together. But the occasional package, either from home or from a program like Operation Santa, always marked a good day.

“It’s just a huge morale booster,” he said.

In addition to the stockings, larger boxes filled with hearty and easily prepared foods, such as instant mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese, are sent abroad.

“These Marines are only getting one hot meal a day and if they happen to be on patrol during that meal, they’ve missed out on the hot meal for the day,” said Workman.

Another round of stocking stuffing is scheduled for Sunday and those wishing to make donations can do so up until Friday by visiting www.marinecorpsfamilyfoundation.org.

Individuals can also make a tax deductible monetary donation on the website to go toward the cost of shipping. Last year, it cost around $1,700 to ship the Christmas items, she said.