As the founder and president of the community e-mail network, the Neighbors International Foundation, Sharon Rainey regularly becomes acquainted with people without ever seeing them in person. However, every now and then she crosses paths with a network member and gets the opportunity to put a face to a name. On Wednesday, Dec. 6 — after a year of waiting — Sharon Rainey was finally able to put a special face, to a special name.
"I hadn't met him before yesterday," said Rainey on Thursday, Dec. 7. "We had e-mailed one another for a year, but meeting him changed me intrinsically and inexplicably. His life story is an example of the American Dream, and it made me feel even more privileged to know him. He is a man of honor, valor, and great heart — and he is just one of many men of the same caliber serving our nation."
For the last year, National Guard Lt. Col. Stan Gabaldon was stationed in Jallalabad, Afghanistan as part of Task Force Phoenix. Originally from New Mexico, it was chance that brought him into contact with Sharon Rainey. In Afghanistan, Gabaldon had gotten to know U.S. Marine Brendan Geraghty — the son of Great Falls resident and Neighbors member Norah Geraghty. One afternoon as Gabaldon chatted with his friend, he noticed that Geraghty was writing letters. When he inquired about them, Brendan Geraghty explained that he was writing responses to people who had mailed thank you cards and care packages from home. He asked Gabaldon to help him out, and Gabaldon was more than happy to comply.
"Well it just so happened that the first letter that I took off the top of the stack was Sharon's," said Gabaldon.
IN ADDITION to being a community e-mail network that provides information about local businesses, news and events, the Neighbors International Foundation is also a non-profit organization that regularly collects letters and donations for care packages that are sent to U.S. troops in the Middle East. The Neighbors Foundation has sent over 3,900 care packages to military personnel serving overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has also forwarded more than 13,000 letters of support to both soldiers and sailors.
“This all started two years ago when I ran into a neighbor at the post office," said Rainey. "She was sending her son a care package in Afghanistan and I thought it would be nice for him to receive some packages from the community as well — not just his family."
Rainey said that once she put the word out to the community, the donations came pouring in and have not stopped since.
"We are going on two years, and the donations are still coming," said Rainey.
Originally, Home Equity Builders, a local remodeling company owned by Rainey's husband Jeff Rainey, covered one hundred percent of the postage costs.
“When we got to the $5,000 mark, we decided we needed to do something, so we created the foundation, which is a 501c3,” said Rainey. “Now that we have created the Neighbors International Foundation, residents can donate for postage as a tax deductible donation."
AFTER READING Rainey's letter, Gabaldon composed and mailed a response, thinking nothing more of the matter until Brendan Geraghty informed him that Rainey had posted the letter on the Neighbors e-mail network, and it had apparently struck a chord with the Great Falls community. Gabaldon said he always laughs when he thinks of Geraghty playfully berating him for "making him look bad."
"Brendan came up to me and said, 'what are you trying to do to me by writing a letter like that?'" said Gabaldon. "He told me his wife kept asking him why he couldn't write a letter like that."
Pleased that his letter had been so well received, Gabaldon struck up a regular correspondence with Rainey, and he soon became her main point of contact for all of the Neighbors Foundation care packages.
"We became very good friends," said Gabaldon. "She would send me all of these packages with cookies, and the Post Office would call me and tell me that I had to hurry up and come pick up all of my boxes because they were taking up too much space."
Gabaldon made sure to divide and distribute the contents of the care packages as evenly as possible. Demand for the Neighbors packages was high, as they typically contained the greatly coveted boxes of Girl Scout cookies. Gabaldon said it was not long before the purple and white Neighbors logo became a symbol that was quickly and easily recognized by all of the U.S. troops stationed at the post.
"The cookies were very, very popular," said Gabaldon. "I got more care packages from Neighbors than anybody else."
Gabaldon also distributed the numerous letters from Great Falls students that came with the packages. He said that the letters were perhaps even more appreciated than the cookies.
"Every letter that gets sent out there is read by at least one soldier – and usually they pass it on from one soldier to the next," said Gabaldon.
As evidence of their significance, Gabaldon recalled the afternoon that he came across a young soldier taking a break. The soldier was reading a letter and Gabaldon asked him if it was from a family member.
"He said, 'no, this kid wrote it and I don't even know him, but I decided to keep it, so I can read it every now and then,'" said Gabaldon.
He added that care packages have a visible impact on the morale of the troops.
"I know it affects them," said Gabaldon. "Even though they're not at home, you're bringing home to them, and it makes a big difference as far as making life easier for them."
GABALDON recently finished his year-long assignment in Afghanistan. Before heading home to his wife and children in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, he was required to make a stopover in Washington D.C. Gabaldon decided to extend
his stay in Washington by one day, for the sole purpose of spending some time in Great Falls with Rainey.
"We met for the first time this morning, but it felt like we've known each other for a while," said Gabaldon at an open house event held in his honor at the Neighbors Foundation offices last Wednesday.
Rainey said it always feels good to finally meet the people she communicates with over e-mail — and she finds it especially rewarding to meet the people that benefit from the efforts of the Neighbors Foundation.
“It is so special when we can attach a real person with an address at the end of those mailings,” said Rainey. “Stan was faithful about letting us know when he received each care package, and he even sent photos of his unit enjoying the goodies and of local children receiving candy from the soldiers.”
After a private breakfast at the Tower Club, Rainey took Gabaldon to visit Colvin Run Elementary School, Forestville Elementary School, and Cooper Middle School — all of which participated in the Neighbors Foundation care package efforts last year. Rainey said that at Colvin Run, one sixth grade student lagged behind his classmates and nervously approached Gabaldon on the playground.
"He was obviously very nervous, and was looking at Stan very seriously," said Rainey.
The boy finally stuck out his hand and thanked Gabaldon for protecting the country.
"I wish this boy's mother had been there to witness it," said Rainey. "I had to force air back into my lungs as this boy's courage and determination had taken my breath away. It brought us all to tears — this was, by far, the most memorable moment of the day. I will take that memory to my grave."
The Neighbors Foundation is continuing in its efforts to send care packages and letters to U.S. troops, and Rainey said that they can always use more postage donations.
“This isn’t about the war," said Rainey. "This is about supporting the men and women who are serving our country. They are doing their jobs in less than ideal circumstances and we want to bring them a little piece of home any way that we can.”