Christmas time is a joyful time for families to come together, no matter their religious affiliations, and for the service women and men who are deployed in war zones, the absence of home is felt even more acutely at this time of year. Inspired by her own son's deployment, Judy Travis started Stockings for Soldiers, to bring some of the love and joy from home to those far away.
Now in its ninth year of operation, Stockings for Soldiers is a nonprofit community project and the "purpose is to make sure that our troops know that they've not been forgotten," says Travis, "and we do this by sending them a Christmas stocking. We had to choose one holiday so we chose Christmas, and we send a stocking filled with goodies to our troops with a personalized stocking."
When her own son was deployed in 2003, she sent him care packages, as did his friends and family. As he received so many, "he shared it with all of his fellow soldiers who didn't get anything from home," says Travis.
"We realized there was such a need for people who don't get anything from home, who don't have a support network, don't have parents so that's what we decided to do."
Having supported her son during the 14 months he'd been deployed, she felt a great relief when he returned safely. "Then I realized, 'we're not done' because the unit that replaced him had the same needs and we needed to make sure that they knew that we were thinking about them."
The goal of the Stockings for Soldiers, which works out of Wilmington, Delaware, is simple. Travis explains that, "We just want them to know that we're thinking about them, we're grateful for their service, and we just want to make sure they have not been forgotten."
Travis settled on the idea of Christmas stockings because "I didn't want to do Groundhog's Day and I didn't want to do Valentine's Day, and I figured, well, let's try Christmas."
"I would like troops to know that we care all the time but this is the time where families get together and they all cook together, eat together, play together, watch football together. It's a time to be with your family and because they can't be with their family and they're so separated and they're in a battle situation, I thought that Christmas would be perfect to send that little hug and send that little warmth."
Although she doesn't celebrate Christmas herself, she understands the energy and joy that surround the holiday and wanted to help the soldiers and their family member at a time when their absence is more conspicuous than ever. "Not everyone celebrates Christmas but they all recognize the joy and Santa always brings gifts," she explains.
Working out of space that is donated to them, Stockings for Soldiers is an operation on a grand scale, one that Travis calls "controlled chaos".
The stockings are handmade by volunteers who start their sewing in January ready for that Christmas and each stocking has the soldier's name written on it in glitter to add a real sense of personalization.
Filling the stockings is an activity that resembles an assembly line as the volunteers fill the handmade stockings with goodies.
The stocking are filled with "just your basic candy and cookies and crackers, a toothbrush and toothpaste, pair of socks, a pen, lip balm of course, baby wipes if we can fit it in."
"Then next to the stocking in that space, we use every space, we'll put in a paperback book, a package of ramen soup, greeting card. Every stocking gets a greeting card so we need 10,000 greeting cards, we need 10,000 ramen soups, we need everything," says Travis.
They also want to make sure they send as many reasons to laugh as possible so for every unit, they send reindeer antlers, Santa Hats, and elf ears, all so the troops can have some fun while opening their stockings.
With a total of 500 volunteers and 40 team leaders whose job it is to make sure that each of the volunteers knows what they are supposed to be doing, Stockings for Soldiers has only increased its production of stocking each year.
In their first year, they made 288 stockings and "this past year, we sent over 10,000 stockings to our troops. All with their names on them and all filled, it was over 45,000 pounds of goodies."
The stockings are then packed into 2 gallon zip lock bags, which themselves form part of the present, and shipped to the troops in large boxes. WIth over a thousand boxes to send, the cost for shipping is extremely high. Last year's shipping costs were near to $30,000.
Receiving the stockings can mean a great deal to a soldier who is missing out on spending time at home for the holidays.
Beau Biden, Attorney General of Delaware, explains that, "It just puts a smile on your face when you get it ... It is a special, emotional moment to know that you're part of the holidays at home in some capacity, and that's what's so special."
While the stockings are a wonderful present for those receiving them, it means a great deal to the families of those deployed soldiers to know that there are people in the country who care about them too.
"We want their families and their support network to know they're not in this alone, they're not the only ones who are worried about their child. We're worried about their child, too," says Travis.
It is her own experience of having a child deployed that made Travis so aware of what other parents were going through. "When my son came home safe and sound, and I realized that other parents were just ready to start their year of anguish, that's why we do the project, it's for those families. Because we know what they're going through, we know what they're experiencing, and we want to just let them know, we've got a little of it covered for them."
One of the team leaders, Lyn Gill says that, "I hope they feel that the people who are in this country appreciate the fact that they are there and that we are sending our love and that they're feeling our love and our appreciation for what they do."
"One of the most important things is that we send a hug and a smile," explains Travis, "because we want the troops to say 'oh my goodness, look at this' and we want them to smile and we want them to feel good for a second about where they are. It's very dangerous, they're at war for goodness' sake."
The weeks of hard work and "controlled chaos" is all made worthwhile by the results and thanks they receive from the soldiers. "Our payment is ... if they can send us a picture of them receiving our stockings with big smiles, that's our payment, we're so glad to do see the end result."
It's a true gesture of kindness from a community who wants to show the troops how much they appreciate the sacrifice they are making for the country.
"We're happy to do it," says Travis, "and we'll get the energy to do it again. It's a lot of work, it's 8 weeks and we are hustling and moving the whole time but so is everybody else and we're all on the same page. Everybody knows they have to be so careful and attention to detail and everyone is just racing up to that level and it makes us so proud and to come back for our volunteers to come back each year and after year to do this for our troops shows that they've been touched too."