When Alessandra Kellermann talks about patriotism, sacrifice, and unity — frequent themes on Independence Day — they have resonance.
Kellermann, 39, is the woman behind Homefront Hugs USA, an organization and Web site she started in late 2001, following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.
The Web site began as a collection of patriotic resources for people like Kellermann, formerly of Potomac and now living in Pensacola, Fla., “wanting to do something but not knowing what.”
IN JANUARY, 2004, Operation Homefront Hugs — a program that facilitated volunteer “adoptions” of deployed soldiers and their families — grew out of the Web site. The adopters corresponded with soldiers, sent them care packages, and looked after the families they left behind. In just over a year, Operation Homefront Hugs matched more than 1,000 volunteers with soldiers and their families.
Both the Web site and the volunteer program are guided by one hard-and-fast principle: inclusion. The Web site makes no reference to politics or religion, and accepts volunteers regardless of their support of or opposition to the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“What I found was a lot of the organizations that were in place you could really see a political slant that was in place, and if you were of one affiliation or the other you really felt out of place,” said Kellermann, a lifelong Democrat. “What we tried to do was we tried to put politics aside, whether or not people felt it was right to go to Iraq or Afghanistan. We weren’t going to be rejecting any requests based on any of that.”
Even before the United States took military action after 9/11, Kellermann was working on a portion of the site for children like her son Ed, now 6.
“I think it's so important that whatever happens in the coming years he doesn’t learn to hate other groups,” she said. When he was 4 she began teaching him about Islam, “Explaining that there were people of many religions that did many things and that all religions were good, they’re just different from other religions.” She reached out to Muslim groups, because she “wanted to make sure that they knew the site for children was meant to unify not alienate.”
In the charged political atmosphere surrounding the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq war, Kellermann had little hope of pleasing everyone.
“A FEW CHRISTIAN right-wing groups didn’t like our ideas of unity on our site,” she said. “I was also a little dismayed with my own Democratic party. A lot said they liked the site but couldn’t be a part of it because they were against the war. And that’s where they missed the point of the site.”
“I felt like the meaning of what we were trying to do was missed, just like it was missed on the right too.”
But Kellermann and Homefront Hugs have many more supporters than detractors. She has received thank-you letters not only from hundreds of soldiers and their families but also from Gen. Richard Meyers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and from President Bush.
“I’d say that the thousands of volunteers that have worked with us deserve the credit,” she said.
In March, she ended the Homefront Hugs adoption program, citing health problems and personal circumstances. Raising Ed had to come first. The site’s thousands of visitors said that of course they understood, but it was sad to see such a great program go away.
So three of the adoption program volunteers took over the program under a new name, Hugs 4 Smiles.
Tim Perry is president of Hugs 4 Smiles, which has facilitated more than 150 adoptions since April 8.
“To just sit there and let that die, and also to let her dream die, was just something we weren’t willing to do,” Perry said. “Alessandra cannot get enough credit for what she’s doing and what she’s done.”
Perry’s group has taken on the same core principles that Kellermann advanced. He said that Hugs 4 Smiles is non-partisan and that no one involved with the group, including its two other officers knows his political affiliation.
“We do not endorse nor do we condone military actions just because we support our troops,” he said, “To us, those are people doing a job. A lot of us have to do things on jobs that we may not necessarily like … a soldier is no different. They don’t get to pick where they’re deployed, whether they’re deployed or not.”
Perry said the three founders of Hugs 4 Smiles started the organization with a voluntary commitment that if Kellermann ever became available to run the program again, they would hand her the reins.
“She is one of the most inclusive people I have ever known. We all have biases and I know she has to have some,” Perry said, “But I have not seen or detected a prejudiced bone in her body toward any group.”
THAT SPIRIT of inclusiveness grew out of Kellermann’s family history.
Her great-grandfather was the Rabbi of Berlin. Her grandfather fought in the Second World War, was present at the Nuremburg trials, and helped to re-educate the Hitler Youth following the fall of Nazism.
Some of her ancestors escaped the Holocaust, fleeing to England and the United States, but others perished. Her grandfather made it to America and married a New England woman who traced her lineage back to the Mayflower pilgrims.
Kellermann and her siblings were raised in both Jewish and Catholic traditions. Her father was a State Department official and she split her time between Potomac, where she attended Carderock Springs Elementary School and Walt Whitman High School, and her father’s posts abroad, mostly in West Africa. When, at 16, she lived with him in Mauritania, she wore Muslim head coverings out of respect for that country’s cultural traditions.
She married an Air Force pilot who served in the first Persian Gulf War, but the marriage ended. She is now a single mother with disabilities, raising a 6-year-old boy.
“She gathered her respect for the troops from her grandfather,” said Perry, who called Kellermann’s personality and values “contagious.” “There are very few people that actually know the number of sacrifices that she’s made … The only thing that took priority over the group in her life was her son; it definitely was not her.”
BOTH PERRY and Kellermann said that their Web sites receive a surge in interest and participation around holidays like Memorial Day and Independence Day.
“For those who are patriotic, I think Independence Day does cause a lot of reflection,” Perry said. While American independence and the fight for Iraqi independence are distinct in many ways he said, there are important parallels.