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Potomac Elementary Lends a Hand

Students participate in community service project, collecting toiletries, snack food and other supplies for U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

Tina Brown doesn’t support President Bush, but she does support the soldiers serving the United States in Iraq, and she knows how much they like Oreos.

While Brown’s son Sgt. Josh Brown was deployed in Iraq, she organized a “care package network” to send granola bars, bug spray, DVDs and Big Red gum to her son and to other soldiers who weren’t receiving packages. The Washington Post ran a story about the network, and Brown quickly found that others wanted to help. “There were a lot of people out there who wanted to support the soldiers but not the war,” she said, “and this was a way to do that.”

There is no general address to which packages for soldiers can be sent; they must be sent to a specific APO. So before Josh returned, Brown asked him to help find other soldiers who could receive and distribute the packages. Later, while working in Annapolis, she met Carol Tuohey, whose son 1st Lt. Vincent Tuohey is in charge of seven Bradley Fighting Vehicles and 30 men in Baghdad. Brown told Mrs. Tuohey about the care package effort and asked if her son could help receive and distribute the packages.

NOW POTOMAC ELEMENTARY School students and parents are lending a hand. The school’s student government and PTA member Diana Conway are asking school families and members of the community to bring in nonperishable food items, reading materials, toiletries, and if they wish, a personal note. The collected items will be sent to 1st Lt. Tuohey next month.

Conway had worked with Brown on lobbying projects and knew that Brown was working to expand the care package network. “It’s not the kind of thing you can bring up at a cocktail party,” Conway said. “The school seemed like the perfect place to do it.”

The Potomac Elementary Student Government Association runs community service projects throughout the year. This year, the school will link each grade level with a needy family through Montgomery County Social Services, and other projects are organized on a monthly basis. But Conway didn’t want to miss the chance to jump-start the year with the care package effort.

“Potomac is loaded with so much of everything that’s good in life. … Everyone has a good education and is fairly affluent,” she said, “and the kids need to be reminded that it’s not like that everywhere.”

The project is not formally incorporated into the school’s curriculum. Students are not required to write letters or to bring in any items. But many students said that they had been out with their families to buy supplies to bring in. Several had also worked on letters. Danielle Green said she

had started a letter but didn’t like it and wanted to start over again. Asked what she hoped to say, she replied, “Try not to get hurt” and “Thank you.”

SO FAR THE RESPONSE has been good, said school counselor Liz Borra, who is overseeing the collection. Stacked in her office are boxes containing packages of shaving gel, lotion, granola bars and Oreos. Many family-sized items from Costco or Sam’s Club have messages written on them in permanent marker. “People are sending in books, they’re sending in CDs. It’s not just the [food] items. We’ll accept anything.”

The list of items to donate came directly from 1st Lt. Tuohey and sheds light both on the daily hardships that the soldiers face and the comforts from home that they particularly miss. The soldiers endure 140-degree heat during the summer, but Brown said they have coolers inside, so sending items like chocolate is OK. Bug spray is badly needed, as are antiseptic hand gel and wipes. “You don’t realize how clean America is, for most of these soldiers, until you get over there,” Brown said.

Because the soldiers only receive Stars and Stripes, which covers the war in very broad terms, many soldiers appreciate copies of news magazines covering the war. Others prefer sports and hobby magazines, DVDs and other materials that offer some distraction from their daily struggles. “Anything like that that really lifts them and breaks the tedium really helps them out,” 1st Lt. Tuohey’s mother, Carol, said.

Brown and Tuohey know that items that are so commonplace here take on a life of their own when they arrive in Iraq. Brownies made by 1st Lt. Tuohey’s aunt were so popular that Tuohey was able to trade them to Army mechanics in exchange for providing needed parts and attention for his tanks.

MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL, though, is a personal note, said Brown. “There are a lot of soldiers that are not getting any mail or care packages,” she said, and it really helps them to hear “a personal hello from real people back here.”

Carol Tuohey said the packages and notes make a big difference for the soldiers that receive them. “These guys really do appreciate hearing from people,” she said. To those who participate in the care package drives, she said, “It’s nice as a parent to think that other people really think about your kid and the people that are over there and serving with him … and I speak for lots of parents whose children are there.”

Though the packages’ most important role is to provide needed supplies and emotional support to the soldiers, they also help soldiers’ families and friends to cope with their separation from their loved ones. “When you’re a parent and you have a soldier serving in this war zone, it’s just an awful way to live. ... You don’t know day to day what’s going on,” said Brown. “Knowing that they’re getting these things … makes you feel a little better because you know it makes them feel better.”

Tuohey echoed that sentiment. “All the communication and the positive response of people means a lot to the soldiers. … They know that they’re not forgotten.”