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Campus & Community

Drexel Plays Secret Santa to Active-Duty Military

December 21, 2016

Soldiers serving active duty this Christmas will soon receive a surprise from Santa, thanks to Drexel’s Veterans Task Force in the Office of Veteran Student Services.

On Tuesday, the task force mailed 125 care packages to military bases around the world that were collected during Drexel’s eighth annual Military Care Package Drive.

Organizers set a goal to fill 125 boxes in honor of Drexel’s 125th anniversary. Though it was the task force’s most ambitious goal yet, they achieved it with some boxes to spare.

“Every year it gets bigger and bigger,” said co-organizer Rebecca Weidensaul, PhD, assistant vice president in Student Life.

To determine what service members need most, the organizers researched soldiers’ family blogs and spoke with members of Drexel’s veteran community. There were the usual things: toiletries, chapstick, sunscreen, beef jerky and other snacks, and boredom-busters like books and games.

But some things came as a surprise, said co-organizer Kimberly David-Chung, assistant vice president of virtual student experiences for Drexel University Online.

For instance, Tabasco sauce and spices are popular, because some military meals can be bland. Service members also want flavor packs to throw into water bottles. Bagged tuna is great, but cans aren’t, because can openers aren’t always standard issue.

Different branches of the military have different needs, David-Chung said. “I learned that people on military ships need tiny stuff because there isn’t a lot of storage. Baby powder is helpful for people deployed in the desert because it makes sand come off easier.”

“We spent a lot of time getting those boxes exactly right,” she said.

Also included in the care packages were American Red Cross letters from children and homemade holiday ornaments made by local children.

Boxes were packed, labeled and mailed Tuesday morning by several dozen volunteers. Once boxes were full, volunteers spelled out a giant 125 with them, and then formed a human chain to carry them from the Creese Student Center into a waiting van from Drexel Public Safety, which provided logistical support. At the post office, another chain carried boxes inside while reporters from CBS 3 and KWY 1060 filmed.

A GoPro camera attached to the final box, labeled no. 125, captured the journey.

“It was frantic and crazy, but there was such an outpouring of love and support and people know why we're doing this,” said David-Chung. “We’re bringing the holidays to people who can’t be with their family.”

Excess donations were given to Jose Martinez, a student-veteran in the College of Nursing and Health Professions who serves as the director of the Veterans Group, a home in Powelton Village for veterans in transition.

This year, donors were invited to “adopt a box.” Drexel’s two therapy dogs each adopted one and their packages were sent to a group called Operation K-9 that provides packages to the military. And the office of Pennsylvania Senator Vincent Hughes asked for three boxes, but received enough community donations to fill five times that.

Recipients of the boxes are active-duty acquaintances, relatives or neighbors of Drexel staff and faculty. Any address submitted to the task force received a box, though the specific recipient of each box is confidential.

Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Joe Saffron, whose daughter attends Drexel, read about the drive in the newspaper and wrote to the organizers: “Having been the recipient of similar packages over three combat tours, I can state without reservation that your actions will be more impactful than you could ever know. This is especially so during the holiday season, when separation from family and loved ones is difficult even on a ‘good’ day.”

Drexel is a generous participant in the federal Yellow Ribbon program with free tuition to all military veterans. More than 700 veterans and 209 military dependents are enrolled at Drexel, about half of them through Drexel University Online, which was a major contributor to the success of the drive.

“This shows a lot of goodwill and how genuinely military friendly Drexel is,” said Weidensaul. “It is just one of those small ways that we express our citizenship and our caring for our citizens who happen to be serving in the U.S. service.”