Group sending Christmas packages to soldiers

CHAMPAIGN – Thinking of sending a Christmas gift to a soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan? Lori Stewart suggests a gift card instead.

OK, maybe there's no Abercrombie or Gap at the Baghdad mall, but today's soldiers are the first in history to have ready access to the Internet.

Stewart, whose son, Brian Jolley, is serving in Iraq until next July, is the founder of Toys for Troops, which started out sending Beanie Babies for soldiers to give to Iraqi kids.

The effort has grown, as have the shipping costs, and Stewart has found the gift cards ideal for mailing. She also researched which companies will mail items to a military APO address.

Amazon.com, Actiongear.com, drugstore.com and netgrocer.com will send packages to APO addresses, she found, and from what her son's friends report, they're popular.

Her group has sent out more than 14,000 donated Beanie Babies all through the year, with her often absorbing the costs of mailing them.

For Christmas, she's thinking big – and small.

"We'd like to give them something they'll really like for Christmas – CDs and DVDs, for instance," she said.

If you're feeling extra-generous, she said, how about an iPod?

Her group is also run by Brian's father, Jeff Jolley, his wife, Michelle, and a friend, Marcee Hampton.

"We've also had help from people as far away as California and the East Coast," Stewart said.

Toys for Troops is sponsoring two events where well-wishers can drop off gifts.

For Thanksgiving CARE packages, there's the Brats Cookout from 4 to 8 p.m. Nov. 3 at the greenhouse of Silvercreek Restaurant, 402 N. Race St., U.

The Thanksgiving boxes will be larger and full of such things as beef jerky, trail mix, long socks, magazines, books, wet wipes, toiletries, aspirin, writing and mailing supplies, and energy bars.

The Christmas drop-off is from 1 to 4 p.m. Dec. 2 at the Worden-Martin showroom, 300 Carriage Center Court, C.

Toys for Troops will be mailing flat-rate boxes Dec. 3 to ensure they will arrive in time for Christmas.

The packages can also include letters from children, senior citizens, church groups, scouting groups and classrooms.

Donations can also be dropped off at the Champaign Police Department or Chanute Air Museum in Rantoul.

Take them to either event or send them to Lori Stewart, in care of Omegatype Typography, 3101 W. Clark Road, Champaign, IL 61821.

To add a soldier to the mailing list, send an e-mail to Hampton at marceehgmail.com.

Combined shipping costs for the Thanksgiving and Christmas care packages will be about $2,500 to $3,000, Stewart said. For those who would like to sponsor the cost of shipping a box, she said, shipping the Thanksgiving boxes will run about $20 a box; Christmas flat-rate boxes will be $8.95 each.

Supporters can make a PayPal donation through the Web site, www.toys-for-troops.com, or send a check to Toys for Troops, in care of Omegatype Typography, 3101 W. Clark Road, Champaign, IL, 61822.

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