VALRICO — It started out a couple of years ago as a small-scale project run by a former soldier inside a Starbucks.
Jeri Fontana set up shop at two Valrico coffee shops while using her stamping craft to make several hundred greeting cards for troops stationed in the Middle East. As customers waited for their orders, Fontana, 45, would ask them for help.
Some made one card or donated money. Others spent hours volunteering and are still involved as Fontana's project, now called Christmas Cards for the Troops, has expanded.
"I think people dig deep when it comes to the holidays and the troops," said Fontana, who left the Army as a captain in 1996 after serving a combined 10 years on active duty and in the Reserves.
The cards Fontana sends overseas are blank inside and intended for service men and women to fill out and send back home to family and friends. She mails cards out four times a year for different holidays, but Christmas is her biggest operation.
Last year's honorary Brandon mayor, Tammy Holmberg, helped Fontana take the project to another level. For the second straight year, volunteers will make between 2,500 and 3,000 Christmas cards for service members to disperse to their loved ones.
Fontana and a few others have prepped the materials, while Holmberg and the current honorary mayor, Connie Smaldone, have raised money (each card costs about a dollar to make and send), but the work isn't done yet.
They need volunteers Oct. 24 at the Campo Family YMCA, where the cards will be stamped and assembled.
As a hobby and a business, Fontana teaches cardmaking and scrapbooking. Her husband is in the Army, and she started making the cards as part of a military spouse support group in fall 2007. The next spring, her Marine nephew kept her motivated when he deployed to Afghanistan.
Since the project's inception, Fontana has received several letters of gratitude from the troops.
"It definitely reinforces that we're doing a good thing," she said. "I think it's such a small thing. They think it's such a big thing. They're very humble."
Tom Mittelstadt, a captain in the Army Reserves, received a couple of hundred cards from Fontana last Christmas. Mittelstadt was stationed in Tikrit, Iraq, where he worked as a lab officer at a combat support hospital.
He kept a few cards for himself and left the rest at the hospital for other troops. The cards were all gone after one day.
"It was hard to be away," said Mittelstadt, 42, of Valrico. "I certainly missed my family at Christmastime.
"When you receive things like that from home, it does let you know that people are thinking about you, and that does make a huge difference."
While in the Army, Fontana deployed twice. She was en route to the Persian Gulf War on Christmas Eve in 1989. Her biggest concern at the time was that her family was too worried about her safety.
Between telephones and the Internet, troops can now communicate with family easier than in past wars. But for some, there's nothing like handwritten mail.
"Today, I know people can e-mail all the time (and communicate through) Skype, so they're in contact with their service members," Fontana said. "But the lost art of a handwritten letter means so much more."
Kevin Smetana can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2439.