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Special Delivery: Helping Soldiers Play Santa

Soldiers deployed during Christmas can send holiday cheer to their wives and mothers back home, thanks to mom-turned-Santa Claus.
Vicki Durfee and Lisa Kaltenbach Miller
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Rhea Anna

The Christmas crunch starts in August. By the time December rolls around, Vickie Durfee's Rochester, New York, home is overflowing with ribbons, tags, tape, and dozens of boxes of makeup. "There's more than one morning I see the sun rise, and that's not because I'm up early," she says.

If you think you have a lot of people on your Christmas list, imagine buying, wrapping, and mailing hundreds of presents across the country. That's the race-against-the-clock scramble Durfee, 54, faces every year. Her organization, Full Circle Home (FCH), sends holiday gifts to the mothers, wives, and girlfriends of deployed soldiers.

"The program is about connecting people," she says. "We are taking care of the women who are supporting the men who are fighting for us. So many folks want to help soldiers, but they don't know how. This gives them the opportunity."

The idea for the organization started with a favor. In 2006 Vickie's son Gil was stationed with his Marine squad in Beirut. He asked his mom to send his fiancee, Ashley, a Christmas present. Simply getting to a computer to order flowers was tough, he says. "You don't have a phone you can always use and you rarely have an Internet connection, so getting the people in your life gifts or showing them an expression of love is very difficult," says Gil, now 25. "And that's what got the ball rolling."

Vickie, a sales director at Mary Kay, thought up a "12 Days of Christmas" set filled with the brand's makeup and pampering products. She wrapped and tagged each day's present so Ashley knew what order to open them in. The gifts—and a handwritten card from Gil—all went into a giant jewel-toned box. Ashley, now 24, was floored. She was usually the one sending packages, not receiving them. "It was great to see how much care and love was in the gift, knowing that it was coming from him, and that Vickie put all this thought into how she would give it to me," says Ashley. "And it made the absence easier. It's like he was right there when I opened it." Vickie recalls, "I could hear the smile in Gil's voice when he told me that Ashley received her present. The gift went both ways."

Christmas presents
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Rhea Anna

In September 2007, on the eve of Gil's deployment to Iraq, Vickie honed the idea for FCH while she was in the shower and praying for his safety. She ran out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around her and wrote up the organization's brochure—while dripping wet. The next day she sent her son off with flyers to distribute at his base. The idea was simple: Each deployed soldier could request one holiday gift for the woman in his life, whether his mother, wife, girlfriend, daughter, or sister.

There's space on the flyer where the soldier can scribble a love note, which is later snipped out and inserted into a card. "I thought it would be cool to do this for his squad of 12 guys," Vickie says. "It made me feel closer to my son when he was deployed. He was doing his work in Iraq, and I was doing my patriotic duty too."

Word spread around Gil's base in Iraq—and in Rochester. Vickie, who spent 20 years teaching ballet and volunteering for various charities, realized she could send more gifts if she could secure donations. In just two and a half months Vickie drummed up enough money from family, friends, and local businesses to send out 150 packages—all with a "12 Days of Christmas" theme. Another Rochester-area military mom, Lisa Kaltenbach Miller, 53, heard about the organization and joined Vickie.

The women had met at the local airport the year before while they were waiting for their sons to return home. The two soon became gift-wrapping, fundraising machines. The following year they sent out 575 Christmas presents and expanded to Valentine's Day and Mother's Day. This year Vickie and Lisa hope to ship out 1,000 Christmas gifts.

For the Durfees, FCH is a family affair—it's even based in their home. Vickie's husband, Jim, 53, an architect, helped design the Web site. Their daughter, Andrea, 26, assists with data entry. Their youngest, Archie, 20, organized a dodgeball tournament when he was in high school to raise funds. At Gil and Ashley's wedding this past summer, Marines from Gil's squad thanked Vickie in person. Vickie pays for the gifts and materials up front out of her own pocket—she orders the beauty products at cost through her position at Mary Kay—with the hope she'll collect enough to reimburse herself. (The organization is currently exploring nonprofit status.) She keeps her regular Mary Kay orders and FCH orders separate; commissions she receives from Full Circle Home orders go directly back into the organization. (Mary Kay does not donate money or products, or offer a discount.)

Vickie keeps two lists: One for soldiers who request a present, another for donors who want to sponsor one. Then she matches them up. Each gift costs about $75, and sometimes a box will be paid for by three or four small sponsor donations. "So many of these guys can't believe someone would do this for them," Vickie says.

Save for a few big-ticket donors, such as a local bank, the majority of FCH's funding comes from small individual donations. "In this economy everyone is fighting for the same dollars," says Lisa. "We just keep trying to get more and more creative." That means throwing wrap parties (BYO tape and pizza), hosting Christmas and Mother's Day shopping bazaars where the proceeds go to FCH, guest bartending at local bars, and placing collection cans in stores.

The presents have evolved since the first one Vickie sent Ashley. Each set starts with a hand-sewn tissue holder donated by Girl Scouts. "Everyone tells me they cry when they open the gifts," Vickie says. It also includes chocolate, body wash, cleanser, lotion, hand cream, mascara, eye shadow, and lipgloss. The last gift is always a fragrance, and there's also a note that reveals the sponsor of the box. Often, when a woman receives a gift, she contacts her benefactor—typically a stranger—and decides to donate time or money to FCH. And so the cycle continues. "I forward the thank-you letters from the women to the underwriters," Vickie says. "And that's the circle—the connection."

When the first round of FCH packages showed up on people's doorsteps, Vickie's phone started ringing almost immediately. Some women ripped open all 12 presents at once, others opened and carefully rewrapped the gifts so they could do it again with their children, and some waited to unwrap them over the phone with their loved one. "Women use the ribbons and tags as ornaments or put them in a centerpiece for Christmas dinner," Vickie says, her voice cracking. "When the women call me I stay on the phone with them as long as necessary because I know that's the kind of support I needed when my son was deployed."

Vickie will keep that dedication to FCH until there are no longer troops deployed. "I'm making other people happy and maybe making their day a little better," Vickie says. "And, in turn, they pass it on." At some point Vickie hopes to hire a small staff and have distribution centers across the country. Eventually she'd like to expand the program to anniversaries and even to provide a handyman service for women whose husbands and sons are in the military. Even though Vickie's and Lisa's sons are no longer serving, the women won't stop their work. FCH has gone beyond gifting and grown into an informal support system.

The bond between military moms is instant and unshakable. Vickie and Lisa send perfume every year to Patty Smith, of South Lake Tahoe, California, whose son Timothy was stationed with Lisa's son in Iraq. Timothy requested presents for his wife and his mother—even though technically there's a one-gift-per-soldier limit. "We didn't want to choose, so we sent them both presents," Lisa recalls. Timothy died in Baghdad not long after. At his funeral Lisa embraced Patty and told her that she smelled beautiful. Patty was wearing the perfume Timothy had sent her for Christmas.

"We're forever bound," Lisa says. "This woman has this last gift from her son. That's what keeps us going."

How You Can Help

Lend your time by hosting a gift-wrapping party in your home or office. Fill out a volunteer registration form at fullcirclehome.org, where you can also make a donation.

Originally published in the December 2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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