Chris Rowe just wanted to say a simple “thank you” to the people of Poynette who have been sending care packages overseas to active military members since 2003.

But on Feb. 25, he got his own surprise as the group, now co-directed by sisters Lori Sorge and Lynette Ives, was meeting at St. Thomas The Apostle Catholic Church for its 200th month of boxing goodies and personal care items for soldiers serving in Afghanistan.

Rowe was deployed to Afghanistan and part of Operation Enduring Freedom and served a six-month tour almost 20 years ago.

“I was not expecting this,” Rowe, a Poynette native, said of the Feb. 25 turnout. “I was a little choked up. It’s been a lot of years since I’ve been over there (overseas) and I just stopped in because I never officially said thank you.”

What Rowe saw was dozens of people joining in to send off the care packages, which included a fourth-grade class from the Poynette Elementary School.

Rowe’s parents, Dave and Cindy, were part of the original group who started the monthly gathering a little over 16 years ago. Chris Rowe was one of many who received packages from the group in the beginning stages.

“It’s a big deal getting something from home,” he said. “You’re in a foreign country, and to receive something from your community, it puts a value on those simple little things. It can’t be explained.”

That’s why Gary Laib, a veteran, and his wife, Sue, began sending off care packages each month in the first place. They had the help of the Rowes as well as Ron and Karen Disher. They all knew how important the little things can be for people in a strange land.

“Sue’s dad was in the military, so she grew up in that,” Gary Laib said. “They don’t have access to things that we may take for granted. And that was the idea. We met at people’s houses and would pack about 90 boxes.”

The Laibs continued taking the lead with their generosity for 12 years, storing items in their basement until the boxes were ready to be shipped. The items have included granola bars and other snacks, along with deodorant and other toiletries. Word searches and magazines are now packed, too.

After those dozens of years for the Laibs, it became a little too much for them to have the lead role in the operation. So in 2015, the Laibs turned things over to sisters Lori Sorge and Lynette Ives, who are the co-directors of the Poynette Military Troop Support Group. All the items can now be stored at St. Thomas The Apostle church.

“The Laibs were amazing in what they did,” Ives said.

“Lori was going to do it by herself, and I said, ‘You cannot do this by yourself,’” she added.

Ives was immediate in coming to her sister’s aide to help run things.

“This makes me feel good,” Ives said at the monthly get-together as she tapped her heart with her palm. “Doing this was a no-brainer.”

Gary Laib didn’t see things going on for 16 years, and counting. Even though he no longer takes the lead, he still helps any way possible, attending every meeting he can. He knows the group will keep sending boxes “as long as it’s needed.”

Sue Laib happened to be absent from the February meeting, but the Dishers were there, per usual.

“I haven’t missed one yet,” said Karen Disher, who still helps by addressing the labels and placing the on the packages.

Everybody comes together for a common theme — knowing or being related to someone in the military. In a pre-packing brief discussion, Sorge asked the students how many had relatives in the military and several raised their hands.

Having a family member in the military is how things got started, and why they have continued for nearly 14 years. Ives’ son was in the army, but never deployed. Ives and Sorge also have a nephew in the marine reserves. Ron Disher is a veteran and the Dishers have children who served in the military.

“Ron was in Vietnam and my kids were in Kuwait three times,” Karen Disher said. “We know what they want and we know what Ron would’ve wanted, too.

“It took 14 days for Ron to get a letter back then, and I was in Germany,” Disher added, noting the technology of today speeds up the communication process to those overseas. “It means a lot to them. They don’t have everything we have here. Things like toilet paper and toothpaste aren’t always there.”

Getting packages over to Afghanistan isn’t easy or the most cost effective. Sorge said that is costs $19.60 just to ship an empty box to the soldiers. In her pep talk to the fourth-grade students Feb. 25, she said that “we want the boxes to be stuffed.” Once full, it costs around $45 per box to be sent. Normally the group sends around 24 boxes each month, but due to generous donations in the past month, the group planned to send out 36 after the February meeting. The cost to ship those boxes empty is $705, and that total more than doubles once all are full and ready to be sent out.

A lot of the work in getting items is through donations, and the group is partially supported by Poynette Ironworks, Inc.

“We are very fortunate to have Poynette Ironworks able to donate $1,000 a month when needed. Last year, I only went to them four times,” Sorge said.

Added community help

For the last few years, Sorge and Ives have gotten some help from the local fourth-grade classes during the school months. It was a notion started by a current fourth-grade teacher, Meghan Visger, and retired teacher Sallie Spees.

It was in conjunction with the classes veteran’s day community service projects. It also offered more hands to lend help, which is always appreciated by Sorge and Ives.

Sorge said that a total of 85 fourth-graders from PES will help out this year. At the Feb. 25 gathering, Halley Koelsch had the privilege of her class helping out.

A hand-written letter by a student to a soldier accompanied the snacks and personal care items in each box.

“We get letters back. This is so meaningful for all who are involved,” Koelsch said. “Being able to support people who put their lives on the line for your freedom and happiness, means everything. The kids wrote that in the letters, so the kids recognize that.”

After instructions were given by Sorge to the students, they worked in pairs — either with another student or with a parent — in packing boxes to get as many snacks and personal care items in each one as possible.

“You see the good with these kids doing this, and the parents bringing their kids to this,” Ives said. “I’m proud … speechless.”

Ives, who lives in Pardeeville, started a similar situation with that community and school district.

“It wonderful that we can bring those two communities together,” Sorge said.

The PES students were eager to fill the boxes, some strategically trying to figure out the best way to fill the box to the brim. Often times a box would nearly be filled, then a student would dump out the contents and try a different configuration.

Koelsch was happy with how much thought her students were putting into the process.

“I seriously want to cry right now,” Koelsch said.

Items to donate

The group can never have enough donated items. Items needed for the packages are men’s and women’s body powder, lip balm/chapstick, conditioner, shampoo, liquid body wash, dental floss, toothbrush, toothpaste, men’s and women’s deodorant, lotion, moist towelettes/baby wipes, nylons-queen size (worn for warmth during winter), Q-tips, mouthwash, pens, men’s and women’s razors, loofah/body sponge, AA and AAA batteries, duct tape, tablets, tissues, toilet paper (one-ply, small roll) hand sanitizer, word searches, magazines, paperback books, packs of blank greeting cards (for soldiers to send back home to families) and small plush animals (soldiers give them to children in Afghanistan).

Food items (in small packages or single servings) needed are granola bars, fruit snacks, gum, mac and cheese (packaged in microwavable bowls), microwave popcorn, Pringles, hard candy, Rice Krispy bars, sausage sticks (non-refrigerated), Skittles, sunflower seeds, cereal (small, single-serve packages), Chex Mix and Pop Tarts.

For more information about the group or how to donate, contact Sorge at 608-444-3036 or Ives at 608-697-0513.

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