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'The hometown cares': Chippewa Falls prepares holiday care packages for deployed military personnel

The Chippewa Herald - 11/13/2023

Nov. 11—Every year Chippewa County residents gather at the YMCA of the Chippewa Valley to put together care packages to ship to active duty military personnel.

Dozens of volunteers spent Friday and Saturday sorting and packing toiletries, food, Christmas decor, books and handwritten cards into boxes that will soon be delivered to military personnel across the globe.

The YMCA of the Chippewa Valley, Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. and McDonell Area Catholic Schools National Honor Society sponsor the event.

In 2022, about 150 boxes were mailed to military service people in the U.S. and abroad. The packages are shipped to any soldier whose name, rank and mailing address is provided to the YMCA staff and volunteers before the packages are put together. But a couple of weeks ago, the YMCA didn't have as many soldier's names as anticipated. In fact, they only had 16 on their list.

So the YMCA then put out a call on social media reminding locals to submit the names of loved ones who are serving in the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and National Guard. The response was immediate.

"We ended up with 312 names, which is more than twice as many as last year," said Amy Huempfner, association marketing director at YMCA of the Chippewa Valley.

Huempfner helps coordinate the drive. She said once they realized how many names they had, the sponsors worried that they wouldn't be able to fund them all.

"All of a sudden, we didn't have enough donations for the care packages. So we actually did something a little different this year and went out and asked social media in the community to step up and sponsor a box for $25," she said. "I was just thinking, you know, as a mom of three I don't want to go out and shop in a store, but I would most definitely support this program. So I just decided to make it a little easier this year and just put that online donation up."

In the days leading up to event, the community stepped up to help.

"We had 143 boxes sponsored in less than two days. So we were able to go out and get a lot more donations," she said. "And now we're gonna be able to do all 312 boxes."

For many volunteers, the drive reminds them of their own years of military service or times when loved ones served.

"Having served on ships at sea on Christmas day, I know exactly what they're going through," said retired Navy veteran Bill Brunstad. "I'll tell you what, getting any kind of package from home, be it from family or just some group that's sending it, it's incredibly emotional. That happened to me, you know, on Christmas Day when we didn't even know what our families were doing. Just to open a present from someone was overwhelming."

Bill said he is proud of his wife, Mary, who started the initiative 20 years ago. He said he can't believe how the event has grown.

"Our son Zachary went into the Navy, and one of the things I saw in 2003 was that for a lot of parents this was all new to them," Mary Brunstad said. "So I would go down to the post office and help them mail packages and everything. And then they'd talk about what they wanted and what the kids needed."

Mary said she approached Jake Leinenkugel about helping to send packages to active duty service members, and he was eager to help.

"He was wonderful and said, 'Let's get it started,'" she said. "It was with the help of the brewery workers and the people at the lodge. It was quite a feat."

Linda Nebelsiek was at the YMCA on Friday packaging items for the troops. She said her husband is retired Air Force and her son-in-law is a retired Marine. She said it's important for people to get involved and give back to the military, especially around the holidays.

"Because they are homesick, they're away from their homes. And this just lets them know the hometown cares," she said.

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