Since 2006 members of "Operation Pioneer Spirit" have gotten together every month to put together "care packages" of personal items including snacks, magazines, phone cards, patriotic pillows, and afghans for the men and women serving our country in Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. We got together with Mary Anne Potter, Eva Ballard, Sue Patterson, and Irvaline "Irv" Kennedy at their work space in the Pioneer Woman Museum to talk about how they got started, what their activities are, the response from the field, and what the future holds for their organization.
[Click on the small photos to enlarge them.]In 2006 Megan Potter went to Iraq and after she had been in country about a week she sent a letter to her mother in Ponca City that said "The PX has hardly anything for the girls, so I'm going to send you a list of things that you can send to me because me and my friends are all in the same boat." Megan's mother, Mary Ann Potter, was reading the letter at the Farmer's Market in the the Pioneer Woman parking lot and Normal Erner came by and said let me see that letter. "Norma pulled seven dollars out of her pocket and said - here you go start something and I'll be right there with you and that's how the whole thing began, " says Potter. "We started in July 2006 and by August 3 had packed our first shipment of 19 boxes."
People started joining in. "When I saw what Mary Ann was doing, I decided I needed to volunteer for this too," says Kennedy. "Our youngest son, Douglas, was over there four times during Desert Storm and then three times this time around." Sue Patterson got involved after one of her grandsons was sent to Iraq. "Our grandson number three was in the Air Force," says Patterson. "He was stationed up in McConnell and they said your group is going to Iraq for six months. I knew that Mary Ann was doing this so that's when I joined in. I was told to go to our Dollar Tree store and take my cart and just start going down the aisles and loading up my cart." Eva Ballard found out about "Operation Pioneer Spirit" through her garden club, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme. "Mary Ann said 'We're going to start this thing and I said 'Oh sure.'"
"We have never turned down a volunteer," says Potter. "We've had people who are blind. We've had people here with walkers. American Legion girls. Sunday school groups." Some people shop, some fill boxes, some people address packages - there is always something for people to do. "Mary Ann had me start out just making out the customs sheets," says Kennedy. "I can do that at home. But in spite of my limited mobility, I got to where I was coming down and and putting the names on the boxes of the people who are going to receive them. If there's anything you ever needed to make you feel good, it's to come down here, and help pack these boxes and get them ready to send overseas. Since I can't get around much any more, I maybe get out every 8 to 10 days but that's not the kind of person I am. After I come down here and work, I am good for a whole week."
Originally items went only to Megan's group, but then the group realized the need was greater. "We were sending so many items to Megan that she started a supply room in Diamondback camp in Mousal which was a real hot spot at that time," says Potter. "The soldiers could go in anytime night or day and get all their items and then word got out and somebody said 'I've got a nephew over there' and I said 'give me their name.'"
Soon the group was sending monthly boxes to 225 soldiers. "It's just a Ponca City connection," says Potter. "We don't care where they are in the United States. If they are being sent to Iraq, Kuwait, or Afghanistan and have a grandma or grandpa, or a neighbor, mom, dad, sister, brother - they say 'I know so and so' - that's the Ponca City connection. We have never turned down a soldier." "People will come into the museum, see what we are doing, and give us a check," says Ballard. "There was a fellow walked in here and he handed Mary Ann a hundred dollar bill. He said 'I just read about this in the paper,'" says Potter. "And we have that happen all the time."
What sort of items the the organization send overseas? "We send tooth brushes. We send dental floss. We send hand soap. We send crossword puzzles. We send magazines. We send phone cards. We have sent over 1,500 afghans that the soldiers use to cover themselves when they go out on long missions and sleep in their vehicles or on the ground. We have sent more than 1,000 'patriot pillows' that we make ourselves so that the soldiers can use to rest when they go out on long trips." Another thing the organization sends are beany babies and toys. "I can't tell you how many hundreds of beany babies we have sent to Iraq," says Kennedy. "The service men and women tell us that they give them to children in Iraq and that it helps build positive relationships with the people. We have heard back that you can't imagine the look on some of the kids faces when they receive the first toy they have ever gotten."
The group gets emails and letters back from the soldiers expressing their appreciation and many of the soldiers have come to visit the group when they complete their tour of duty to tell them how much the packages mean to them. "We've had soldiers who tell us they are doing reconnaissance work and we don't even know where they are," says Potter. "I had a soldier say that he was in the middle of a fire fight in Afghanistan and his mouth was real dry. He had put some candy in his pocket and he reached down into his pocket and put the candy into his mouth and he said that it felt like Oklahomans had not forgotten him. Just that little piece of candy that we had sent them - he was in the middle of nowhere but it just kind of reminded him of home. Things like that just bring tears to your eyes and let you know you are doing good work. I just feel like it is one person reaching to another person. They are over there. A lot of them are just young kids scared to death and my daughter says you get very lonely and when they get a package they feel like Oklahomans have not forgotten them."
So how long will "Operation Pioneer Spirit" continue? "This will go on," says Potter. "We will not stop until the last Oklahoma soldier is home."
Top: Members of "Operation Pioneer Spirit" pack boxes to send to service men and women in Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. From left: Irvaline "Irv" Kennedy (in background), Mary Anne Potter, Sue Patterson and Eva Ballard.
Center: "Operation Pioneer Spirit" has sent more than almost 4,000 "care packages" overseas.
Bottom: The group gets emails and letters back from the soldiers expressing their appreciation and many of the soldiers have come to visit the group when they complete their tour of duty to tell them how much the packages mean to them. Photo of Megan Potter in Iraq.
Take a look at other photos of members of "Operation Pioneer Spirit." Click on each small photo to enlarge it - or take a look at a slide show of the program.