When Linda Kidwell reads letters she's received from deployed soldiers in Afghanistan, her heart bleeds just a little.
The words they write describe their appreciation for what many take for granted. An assortment of candy bars, a hand-knitted cap or a box of peanut butter crackers mean more than the items themselves. They mean someone cares.
And that is all the motivation the Spring Hill resident needs to keep pressing forward, against undeniable odds, to get as many as 100 care packages out to the troops each month.
"If I can make them happy, even for just a moment," Linda said, "because you don't know what's going to happen."
Linda and her husband, Larry, founded Gifts From Home five years ago after Linda was moved by a donation box set up at a local VA office to collect items for Christmas. Her guilt over missing the deadline set into motion an obsession she can't quite shake. It operates out of a small office off Aerial Way.
Challenged by her neighbor, Bob Dubois, she mailed 240 care packages that year. And that was the beginning of Gifts From Home, a not-for-profit organization that depends entirely on donations of items, volunteers and money to make sure the troops are not forgotten.
Linda's most endearing inspiration, and her partner in the effort, served in Vietnam. "I didn't know Larry then," she said. "But he told me stories that broke my heart.
"Everybody was against the Vietnam War," she said. "But were they really against their neighbor's son or daughter or husband or wife? They didn't think about all the servicemen and women who were over there giving the ultimate sacrifice."
Linda said helping those deployed now is like paying restitution for all those who had suffered, like Larry, during the Vietnam War. "It's like getting a second chance to do it right," she added.
Her efforts are making dramatic differences, validated by the soldiers who received the gifts.
Ernest Chainey was deployed three times to Iraq, beginning in 2006. He remembered the first care package he'd received, filled with food items.
"But what I remember the most, and still have to this day, is a little bag with a star cut from the American flag," he said.
Gifts From Home includes these stars in every gift box to remind the soldiers of their American support.
Each month Linda and her neighbors, Bob Dubois, June Burgess, Claire Hoover and other volunteers, including the Marine Corp, pack the care boxes and ship them to the soldiers on the list. Many, like Chainey, remain in contact even after their deployment ends.
But it's a task met with resistance each time she pays for shipping from money the organization works tirelessly to raise. It's a never ending battle to keep the process going each month.
Donations of items, she said, are plentiful at this time, although she is making an appeal for Christmas items like empty stockings, decorations and candy. But they drastically decline after the holidays.
"Everyone's in the giving mood during the holiday season," Linda said, noting as soon as Christmas is over, people forget.
But Gifts from Home continues to ship boxes year round and is therefore in continuous need of donations.
"And we always need money," she stressed. Each box costs $13.45 to ship.
Unless they can increase the amount of financial donations, there is no guarantee the boxes will continue to get out."
That's not an acceptable option for Linda. The soldiers look forward to the contact from home.
Like Michael, from Louisiana, who wrote; "It's great Americans like you and Larry that drive us to do what we do…"
Another writes; "Give Larry a great big hug from us and tell him thank you for his service. We are proud to follow the footsteps of the great generation of men who sacrificed so much."
Chainey, who was medically retired last year and suffers from a laundry list of physical and emotional traumas, finds solace in the efforts of Linda and Larry. His loyalties belong to his comrades who are still fighting.
"It made me feel good," he said, "especially on a bad day."
"I don't know why I do this," she Linda said. "I guess it's simple. We just can't forget them."
For more information about Gifts From Home, contact Linda and Larry Kidwell at (352) 684-4185 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.