SPRING HILL — Operation Sandy Branches is in full swing, and so dozens of boxes containing reminders of at-home Christmases will soon depart from Hernando County to 253 troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
For the second year in a row, the folks behind Treat the Troops, an effort that has so far flooded service personnel overseas with more than 60,000 homemade cookies, is sending holiday cheer boxes to the war zones.
Each box contains an 18-inch-tall Christmas tree, complete with handmade decorations. Dig deeper, and there's a stocking stuffed with candies and other treats. Also included are greeting cards and letters of thanks and support.
Donors have paid $14, which covers the tree, goodies and shipping, said Barbara Newlin, who, along with her husband, George, is coordinating the project.
Some 8,000 ornaments have been made, mostly by residents of the Silverthorn community, where the Newlins launched Treats for Troops three years ago. Many others were created by volunteers at the local hospitals' enrichment centers and students at Pine Grove Elementary School, all starting back in May.
On Saturday, an army of helpers gathered at Silverthorn to pack the boxes with hometown holiday cheer.
To stuff the stockings, Barbara Newlin hosted a birthday party for herself, asking for stocking items rather than gifts. She also urged Silverthorn residents to donate any leftover Halloween candy, and some kids deposited the contents of their trick-or-treat bags into donation boxes. The take was 125 pounds of candy.
Letters and handmade cards came from students at Chocachatti and Pine Grove elementaries, Hernando Christian Academy and the Timber Pines community. The Silverthorn Homeowners Social Club labored over customs forms for the boxes.
"We chose the recipients by contacting some of the military chaplains and commanding officers of units we've sent cookies to in the past, asking them for names of deployed service members they might know who are not getting packages from home or were unlikely to receive Christmas decorations from family members," Barbara Newlin said.
Homemade cookies, the foundation of Newlins' effort to Treat the Troops, began with a brunch. About a dozen neighbors were asked to bring 60 cookies each for forwarding to service members, and the response was overwhelming.
The endeavor soon outgrew the available space, and the couple opened a freezer for anytime donations. To date, they've collected and sent 60,000 cookies. "Our efforts to support the troops are year-round." Barbara Newlin said.
Beth Gray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.