For The Troops

Gail “Boatsie” VanVranken remembers the images of sacrifice and valor that followed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In fact, she was so deeply touched by what happened – and how the country responded to it – that she knew she had to find some way to do her part.

Her need to be involved grew even more when her son, Patrick, joined the military. He currently is a sergeant with the U.S. Air Force.

Little did she know that the organization she would start in 2004 after Patrick enlisted would turn into one that supplies thousands of care packages each year for the nation’s military men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

VanVranken started “Boatsie’s Boxes” in 2004 from the basement of her Forest Hills home in Wheeling. She said she never could have imagined how it would evolve.

“It was just something I wanted to do,” she said, noting the organization sends care packages throughout the year to troops overseas. “I started small, asking members of my Twig group to help.”

Now she deals with numerous companies throughout the nation as well as “satellite” groups, organizations, schools and individuals from every state. The companies and her volunteers, she said, “have been unbelievable.”

“We ship about 50 boxes per week including our four special projects,” VanVranken explained. “It adds up to more than 2,800 boxes per year.

“I have between 60 and 80 points of contacts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait and I check with 15 to 20 of them on a weekly basis to see what they need. We fill in the gaps during the year. If we get bigger, we’ll face that when it happens.”

Packages sent from Boatsie’s Boxes make it to front-line troops, support hospitals and staying facilities. Because of these contacts, “I’ve only had four boxes sent back because they could not be delivered and I know what I send, they need,” she explained.

The care packages were “obviously needed, and it’s not over. It is even needed now more than ever.

“We have sent more than $1 million worth of supplies. Our troops still need our love and support as much as they did in the beginning. I’ll stand with them until they all come home. I intend to do this as long as they are there.”

She pointed out about 140,000 men and women are currently deployed.

“I don’t see them coming home anytime soon. I think they’re doing a magnificent job,” she said. “Their sacrifices are something most of us could not do. They give us the freedoms we have. They are my heroes. We will continue as long as it takes.”

According to VanVranken there is a need for a re-energizing of the spirit following Sept. 11, when the nation was united, very patriotic and giving. She pointed out her group will be launching its eighth annual Operation Christmas Stocking in September.

Each year the organization has sent more than 20,000 Christmas stockings to the troops during the holiday season. This year she hopes to send about 8,000 from her national satellite groups and 15,000 from the local area.

VanVranken noted the special need, this year, is for additional candy, because a Maryland group that has supplied candy in the past will not be sending what they had previously. Financial donations are also needed.

“Our local community is wonderful,” she said. “They are unbelievably supportive and we really need it. Even with this bad economy it’s amazing what people will do.”

A drive held in conjunction with Cabela’s earlier this year led to 10,000 bags of jelly beans being sent to the troops. VanVranken also was honored during an event at Cabela’s for her service to the nation.

She pointed out the organization spends in excess of $45,000 each year just to send the boxes to the troops. Schools and groups helping to make up stockings are asked to send a dollar with each stocking to help with the cost to send it. She said donations can be made on the Boatsies Boxes website.

“It’s a passion of mine,” she concluded. “I’m so proud of them.”