Toys for Troops founder helping cool soldiers down

URBANA — Lori Stewart has lots of fans. And in the next few days they'll be heading to Kuwait and Afghanistan to help cool off soldiers there.

The Urbana woman is the founder of Toys for Troops, which started in 2007 when her son Brian Jolley had his first deployment overseas.

Then a 21-year-old Army private, Jolley was serving as a combat engineer in Iraq.

The Centennial High School graduate started making friends with young Iraqis, and Stewart started sending Beanie Babies for him and his friends to give out.

Since then, she has mailed just about everything a soldier can use or give away in care packages, with the gifts usually donated but often paying the postage herself.

The troops gave Stewart a big thumbs-up.

Stewart is now sending off small electric fans with misters for desert troops. They can fill the bottoms of the fans with ice water.

She's starting with 50 fans, bought at wholesale price, as well as the batteries needed for them, but imagines the program becoming much bigger as demand increases.

So far, there are only 25 soldiers on the wish list.

Urbana VFW Post 630 donated $1,000 toward the project, Stewart said.

Every year, Lincoln Trail School in Mahomet sends 600 letters to soldiers, in addition to Stewart's care packages.

Sgt. Jerrica Hightower, a 23-year-old from Seymour, said the program is a morale-booster as well as a way to bring people of different faiths and ethnicities together.

"Receiving mail while deployed is a big morale booster. It's like Christmas, you never know what you will get," said Hightower, who served in Bagram, Afghanistan, from May 2009 to May 2010.

"The baked goods were always the first thing to disappear after the box was opened!," she said.

Toys for Troops send 100 dozen cookies three weeks ago to five different platoon leaders in a attempt to find a wider list of soldiers to help.

Stewart noted that the U.S. also has troops in Kuwait, where temperatures can reach 120 degrees.

The gifts make a difference, Hightower said.

"Toys for Troops helped me and a lot of people from my unit while we were in Afghanistan, and then again when we had a short tour to Iraq," she said.

Stewart's website is http://www.toys-for-troops.com.

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