By Vicki Louk Balint
Kathleen Lewis always considered herself a patriot. But when her son Christian enlisted in the U.S. Army on Sept. 11, 2001, her love of country shifted into overdrive. Just after Christian’s initial deployment, she established Packages from Home, a non-profit organization that packs and ships boxes of comfort items year-round to service members all over the world.
Vicki: You paid a visit to your son in March of 2004, before he left for his first deployment, and you met the members of his U.S. Army combat unit.
Kathleen: I flew to Germany just to give him a kiss goodbye. I got to meet his friends. I knew so many of them had no families, or their families were in a situation where things were difficult. As they were actually deploying, getting on the buses to go to the planes to go to Iraq, I could see the tension. It was just so heavy on them; it was like a big wet blanket on them. I swore right then and there that I was going to make a difference.
Vicki: So you settled on the idea of sending boxes of comfort items and started Packages from Home. What experiences in your background did you draw upon to get it started?
Kathleen: First of all, I’m a mom. And moms can get anything done. If a mom loves you, she can move a mountain for you. In the past I’ve been very involved—PTA president, soccer mom, homeroom mom, the whole thing. I own a small business with my husband.
Vicki: And it wasn’t the first time you spearheaded an operation to support the troops.
Kathleen: When I was freshman in high school, I got my girlfriends together and we sent packages to sailors in Vietnam on the USS Bon Homme Richard—they called it the Bonny Dick. We all made sure that they had the things that they needed. I was a graduate of St. Mary’s High School and of course, the Franciscan fathers will beat charity into you, God love them. It’s always been a part of my life.
Vicki: What do you remember about packing and mailing the first shipment?
Kathleen: We were putting all the wrong things in the wrong order. We thought that if we took the food items and we got them all together in a plastic bag, and then put hygiene items in a plastic bag, we could send 50 or 60 pounds worth not only for Christian but also for his guys. Then I found out that the hygiene items contaminate the food. You never want to do that. They need to go in separate packages! Plus, you never want to pack 50- or 60-pound heavy boxes they have to carry back to their tents. I don’t know what I was thinking!
Vicki: Ultimately, you learned what items Christian and the rest of the troops really wanted and needed. And also a few tricks on how to pack more efficiently.
Kathleen: Well, Christian set me straight real fast. One of his favorites is strawberry Nestle’s Quik. Peanut butter and jelly are huge, crackers are huge, Pop-Tarts, beef jerky. On the hygiene side, soap, laundry detergent. But you have to be careful with that, as we’ve learned, [because] some name brands [contain] brighteners that show up on night scope. We listen to our guys and girls in the field. What they request is what we send. They can’t run off to the local big box store, and if they don’t have a mama—or Packages from Home—sending them, they’re going to do without.
Vicki: It is hard to imagine the stress and worry families feel when loved ones are in harm’s way. Talk about how, as a mom, you cope with the stress.
Kathleen: Christian has been on three full deployments. Each one has been extremely difficult. You just keep putting one foot in front of another. You’re just praying every day they are going to be safe. As a mom, you want to keep your child under your wing all of the time. But that’s not the way life works. You have to let them go. You have to let them do what they’re the best at. He’s trained for his job and he does it very, very well.
Vicki: Sending some comfort from home, showing gratitude…you say on the Packages website that you hope showing appreciation and gratitude this way increases the chances that service members will come home safely. How?
Kathleen: We’re not under the illusion that a Pop-Tart is going to save someone’s life. But the whole point of those warm, comforty things we all like, that are very American, [is that] when they get the box with all these different items, they have home. They know somebody that loves them packed it for them. We hope that makes them a little smarter, a little sharper, a little clearer. And if it is their last day…they’ve had their Pop-Tart, they’ve had their magazine, their peanut butter and jelly sandwich—and they know that someone cares.
Multimedia journalist Vicki Louk Balint, of Phoenix, is the mother of four children ages 19 to 29.
Listen to “A Conversation with…Kathleen Lewis.”