With all the involvement worldwide by our military, and after discussions with my mom and dad, who is a former Marine, I decided I wanted to do something to "give back" to our soldiers and their families overseas. The meager salary of a junior enlisted soldier is barely sufficient for themselves, but if they have any kids, they are considered under the poverty line. Many of these families would qualify for state-based assistance if they were stationed in the states; however, these programs are not offered for soldiers that are overseas.
So the question became "what can I do to help these men and women?" I knew I could write letters and email them about how much I appreciate their service. Well, even though that may make them feel good about themselves, it doesn't really help them that much. I also found that I could send them care packages with clothes and food, which was a good idea, but then I found an even better idea: The Overseas Coupon Program (OCP). It was founded in 1992 and helps families by giving them manufacturer's coupons to overseas military bases.
I decided to take on the role of Community Coordinator for Garden Valley, Idaho for the Overseas Coupon Program for the year 2010. I "adopted" the Naval and Marine Corps Station in Sigonella, Italy from a list of potential "adoptees" that were listed on the Overseas Coupon Program website. All the contact information was there, and the reporting requirements. I then began collecting, printing off the internet, clipping, sorting, totaling dollar amounts, and shipping to the base.
The cool thing is that military troops can use these coupons three months past their expiration dates. It was slow going at first, as I was doing it on my own, with the help of my mom. I wanted to take on the task for a year, with the idea of sending a few thousand dollars in coupons. After a letter was published in the Idaho World (the local weekly newspaper), more people began sending me coupons. I was receiving them from numerous people in three states in addition to Idaho.
As the coupons piled in, the project became a bit more difficult, as the space and time it took to get them all organized and shipped out increased. My mother assisted me when she could, and we made it a goal to ship at least one box a month, and do the follow-up reporting. There was a time when the upstairs family room had stacks, sacks and boxes of coupons taking up most of the seating, and a good amount of the floor space. Organizing was important, or the project could have overwhelmed the house. As we neared the end of the year-long project, we continued to receive the usual Sunday insert coupons, as well as those sent by mail, left for us at drop sites in Garden Valley, or delivered to our house. My initial goal of a few thousand dollars of coupons has been met many times over, with the last package sent putting the total at $96,000! I spent over 250 hours on this project.
There are over 7,000 people on this base, so quite possibly the benefit of my project could have impacted all of them, by allowing limited budgets to stretch. I have seen some of the comments from recipients of deliveries from the Overseas Coupon Programs, including the following: "We lived in Italy for 3 years, and this was such a help to us. The only way we got coupons is if they handed them out in the store. Other than that we waited on the kindness of friends and family back in the states to send them to us. Thank you for doing this for the military families. Signed Kris" "I am an Army wife who was stationed in Germany for 3 years and those coupons helped us out a lot! Signed, Kimberley". I'd like to think there are people in Italy that have received portions of my project that feel the same way.
I feel it was an important volunteer activity, as it not only provided financial help to our troops, but gave them a personal "thanks" from me to them individually. I think it's always important, and sometimes under used, to give thanks to people who go above and beyond for others.
Even though I am graduating this year, and will be moving on to college, I'm hoping that one of the coupon contributors that lives part-time in Garden Valley and part-time in Reno, Nevada, will continue on coordinating the effort. I've sent her the information I have, and think that this great project can continue with her leading it.
Through my experience participating in the Overseas Coupon Program (OCP), I have learned what it means to be a part of something bigger than myself.
The most memorable part of doing this volunteer project was that when I gave a presentation about the Overseas Coupon Program to my entire High School student body. Everyone in the school thought that it was a great idea to help the troops stationed in other countries. I have experienced several instances that have made me feel really good about myself, and what I am trying to accomplish -- including the feedback from my school, people from the base I send the coupons to have sent me letters and certificates, expressing their thanks.
I would definitely tell younger people that they should get involved in community service projects! It doesn't matter if it is just a one day commitment or an ongoing process. It makes you feel great about yourself, and can be very rewarding.
I'd also like to thank Ron and Linda Lee of Reno, Nevada and Noreen Larson of Lowman, Idaho for all their assistance in making this project a success and for all the bags and bags of coupons they helped me with.
Dylan Bass was named a Prudential Spirit of Community Award State Honoree for his great acts of volunteerism. Created 16 years ago, the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards represent the United States ' largest youth recognition program based exclusively on volunteer community service, recognizing young heroes who have made exceptional impacts on the lives of others. Each year, two honorees from each state receive $1,000 dollars, an engraved silver medallion, and an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C. for several days of national recognition events. While in D.C., ten students will be named National Honorees on May 2nd, receiving an additional $5,000, gold medallions, trophies, and $5,000 grants from The Prudential Foundation for a charitable organization of their choice. More information on the program, including all volunteer projects, can be found by visiting http://spirit.prudential.com.
And to watch the naming of America's top ten youth volunteers on May 2nd, secure your spot here to watch the live webcast ceremony event here.
This story is part of Military Families Week, an effort by HuffPost and AOL to put a spotlight on issues affecting America's families who serve. Find more at jobs.aol.com/militaryfamilies and aol.com.