SPRING HILL — A shipment of homemade cookies this month to military personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan will mark the last hurrah for the local Treat the Troops endeavor, founder Barbara Burke has announced.
Burke, who launched the program in advance of Christmas 2007 with a major bake-off of homemade cookies sent to overseas troops, is moving soon to South Carolina to be closer to two sisters who live there.
Since the effort's inception, a consistent group of a dozen volunteers and occasional helpful bakers have packed and shipped a whopping 78,462 cookies.
"Everybody just bakes to the time they have," Burke noted. But the effort has taken a toll on the volunteers who "are running out of steam'' and have decided not to continue, she said.
The August shipment will be their last, Burke said.
Burke said she wasn't aware that Army Spc. Justin Dean Coleman of Hernando Beach was deployed to a war zone until she read in the St. Petersburg Times of his death July 24 during a firefight near the Afghan-Pakistani border. Had the Treat the Troops cadre known of him, she said, Coleman certainly would have been on their mailing list.
The bakers are asking all Hernando County residents to come forward with names and addresses of service personnel to add to their recipient roster.
"It would be nice to concentrate on men and women who are deployed, who are from Hernando County or have ties to Hernando County, such as parents and grandparents," Burke said.
"With (Coleman) in mind, how many other local soldiers are serving (whom) we don't know about?" she asked. The final batch of cookies will target these recipients, she declared.
"With it being local, I think it will really make the bakers excited and motivated to make this a grand finale," Burke said.
More than homemade cookies have poured from the local Treat the Troops effort.
Trees for Troops efforts in 2007 and 2008 provided about 450 miniature imitation Christmas trees and stockings, funded by donors, sent to deployed military personnel. Children from all of the county's elementary schools and a couple of middle schools, plus volunteers, made decorations that were included in those box shipments. School students created some 3,500 holiday cards and letters to enclose or to be sent individually to military personnel.
Hundreds of cool scarves, filled with a sweat-absorbing material for tying around the forehead or neck, were stitched by volunteers to be included in the treat boxes, Burke said.
Cash donations came in to buy and ship 30 cases of Girl Scout cookies this year.
Burke's group also launched this year the Star project, in which embroidered stars were clipped from worn-out or faded U.S. flags, then tucked into the treat boxes headed overseas and further handed out to veterans of all stripes with a brief missive thanking them for their military service.
Burke said her group has received about 300 responses from military personnel who have opened packets from the Hernando do-gooders. The gist of the messages, said Burke, "is that it means so much to them that people back home are thinking of them, especially strangers.
"They don't expect anything from a non-family member, just a citizen to take the time out to express their gratitude is huge to them."
Burke couldn't guess the number of hours she has devoted to Treat the Troops. "I have no idea. Countless." Eager to pass the credit on, she said, "When you think of the hours the ladies have been baking, it has to be in the thousands."
Moving to South Carolina, the national headquarters of the grass roots Treat the Troops program, Burke said she'll put aside her organizational duties but continue to bake cookies.
Beth Gray can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.