By Celia Shatzman
As the former wife of an Air Force pilot, Alessandra Kellermann, 45, knows how hard it is when a loved one is deployed overseas—the loneliness, the constant fear and worry, the deep sense of isolation. She also remembers the great comfort that sending a care package can bring. That's why the Ann Arbor, Michigan, mom founded Homefront Hugs USA shortly after American troops were deployed to the Mideast in the wake of 9/11. Soldiers can sign themselves up—along with their families—at homefronthugs.org, specifying what they need, and the group matches them with volunteers who will mail them the items every month. "Whether they have families or not, our troops need to feel that there is widespread support," Alessandra says. "They just want to be in touch with somebody and are happy to know others are thinking of them."
And many are. More than 10,000 members have pitched in so far. In some cases they "adopt" servicemen who have been enrolled in Homefront by caring commanders. Military wives and moms-to-be sign up, requesting baby shower items, a magazine subscription or small gift card, stickers and comics for the kids, or DVDs for the family to watch together. Alessandra, who puts in 40-plus-hour weeks for the organization, also refers soldiers to agencies that can provide other services they might need, including mental health counseling, financial support or assistance filing military paperwork. And with her 12-year-old son, Ed, she created the Homefront Hugs Kids Club, which has now expanded to several chapters across the country, encouraging children to get involved, by wrapping packages, sending cards to soldiers and participating in local volunteer projects alongside kids whose parents are deployed. "When they can give back in their own community and come face-to-face with the people they're helping, that makes a big difference," Alessandra says. "And we hope they're learning what our soldiers are fighting for—freedom—and that it's their gift to all of us."