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Care packages from A Soldier’s Hands let service members know ‘they matter’

by on November 01, 2018 11:09 AM

In August 2007, Trish Shallenberger was trying to get a flight from Dallas to Philadelphia. Storms moving through the area had delayed flights and standby passengers were accumulating. She was asked if she would give up her seat and she declined. After a three-hour delay, she boarded her plane, sat in the window seat she had chosen earlier that week, and turned to face the person sitting beside her.

Dressed in civilian clothes, he was a young man barely out of his teens, with closely cropped hair and an innocent face. The tops of his hands were sunburnt from several weeks of training in the Texas heat, while the bottoms were covered in “huge welts, bigger than a silver dollar.”

Shallenberger, a mother of four, offered him some hand cream, for which he was appreciative. The two began talking and she soon learned the young man, Mark Edhegard, was a military medic training at Fort Hood before deploying to Iraq. He assured her his faith and military family history had prepared him as well as possible for the upcoming difficulties, but that, after his weeks in Texas, he had a new concern – the sun.

A Mary Kay representative and all-around charitable individual, Shallenberger immediately volunteered to send him some skincare items to assuage his fears.

According to Edhegard’s mother, Marsha, her son’s Christian values and Southern sensibilities kicked in and he courteously declined Shallenberger’s offer. He would not feel comfortable accepting such a gift, knowing that not everyone in his unit would benefit similarly.

Not to be deterred, Shallenberger quickly said if that was the case, she would send the same to his entire unit. Little did Shallenberger know that Mark’s unit consisted of nearly 200 individuals.

“I thought, what have I committed to?” Shallenberger says with a laugh as she recounts the story. “[But] I had made a commitment at that point. I told him to count on me.”

It took her just a few months and, on Thanksgiving Day of that year, she says she received an email from Mark that said, “Today is the best day in Iraq. I was Santa Claus and I handed out care packages to every single member of my unit, because you said that you were going to do that and I knew everyone would be covered. Trish, you have to know that there are grown men here crying, tough old men, because they had never received anything. They left Alabama in March and now it’s November and they hadn’t received anything.”

For Shallenberger, that was one of the aspects of military life that surprised her the most, and that drives her commitment to the organization that slowly evolved from this one serendipitous meeting.

After that initial send of nearly 200 care packages, she rounded up another shipment to Mark’s unit. From there, it snowballed. “People would find us and they would say … we heard you send care packages to units, can you send some to my son, to my daughter? That’s how it started. … In 2013, someone from Fort Hood again contacted us, and asked if we could ship to a battalion.”

Even after six years of semi-official work, the battalion, at 800 people, would be a huge step up for Shallenberger and her now-established team of volunteers.

“I knew that was a lot of money. We went back to the people who’d supported us over the years, and they said, ‘We’ve got this, all things are possible, don't worry how, just get going.’ [After that] I thought … we would retire. I couldn’t think bigger than 800,” she says. “Then something shifted, and instead of retiring, that’s when we became an official nonprofit, a 501c3. We’ve been doing it ever since.”

A Soldier’s Hands is still an all-volunteer organization. There are several board members in Yardley, Pennsylvania, where Shallenberger lived in 2007, and now an additional board member in State College. Her family’s move from Yardley to State College was only one of two big challenges awaiting Shallenberger and A Soldier’s Hands in 2017.

The move wasn’t an easy one. In addition to the normal stress a family experiences when moving, there was the uncertainty surrounding what would happen to the organization that Shallenberger had poured her life into for the last decade.

Despite the fear, Shallenberger tapped into her can-do, faith-driven attitude and realized the move would uncomfortably push her into a necessary place for growth.

“We’re just starting in a new place. It’s a new opportunity to make new contacts, to build in a different area. If I want to become a bigger organization that can then serve more deployed military, then you have to grow. … We’re continuing to work very heavily in Yardley, we’re still connected there, but now we’re being connected here,” she says.

Since the move, A Soldier’s Hands has worked with various groups in the area, appeared at various high-traffic events to raise awareness, conducted a volunteer project with Saint Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg, and took part in Penn State’s Military Appreciation Day. She says the reception has been positive, to the point that one anonymous business even donated office space to the organization.

Shallenberger’s other challenge that arose last year occurred shortly following the USS Reagan’s late-2017 casualties.

“A helicopter went to fly on the deck of the Reagan, there was a problem and they ended up in the water. Eleven men went into the water and eight came out. When I saw that on the news, I said to my husband, ‘There’s our next unit.’ And he said, ‘You know the Reagan’s huge, don’t you?’” Shallenberger explains, again laughing in the face of what might seem, to some, as unsurmountable odds – the USS Reagan’s 3,200 crew total.

“We’re committed to sending all 3,200 sailors individually wrapped care packages. That’s our current project at the moment; we’re about a third of the way done with that,” she says.

Each A Soldier’s Hands care package includes sunscreen, a hand cream, a lip balm with SPF, candy, a handwritten letter, and a special star, lovingly taken from retired flags. The cost of compiling and then sending all 3,200 boxes to the USS Reagan’s location off Japan? About $25 per box, or somewhere in the range of $80,000. She hopes to have it all done by Christmas. It’s a tall order for an organization that, for many years, operated out of the Shallenberger’s living room, and that still has no paid staff.

However, Shallenberger, whether she intended to or not, has raised for herself an army of volunteers that is behind her wholeheartedly.

“When you meet Trish, you can’t help but believe in her and her mission,” says Marianne Titus, who volunteered with A Soldier’s Hands for several years when it was based in Yardley. “To watch someone who so selflessly came up with this … and who just had faith in her mission and continued … it’s truly inspiring.”

Because of her positive experience with A Soldier’s Hands, Titus continues to volunteer elsewhere in the Philadelphia area, but she notes there’s a large difference between the experience volunteers enjoy at A Soldier’s Hands and the one they have with other organizations.

“There was never any, ‘Sign on the dotted line, you’re committed for blank-blank-blank.’ It was open, you came [to volunteer] if you could, you were welcomed, you were loved while you were there. Compared to a lot of charitable organizations, it was very, very welcoming. ‘Give us whatever you can and we’ll be extraordinarily grateful for whatever you can give,’” she explains.

“Anyone who knows Trish can tell you that she puts everything she has into ASH and it could not be more inspiring to work alongside her,” adds another volunteer, Rocco Chirieleiso, who lead the service project that occurred at St. Joseph’s.

“About a decade ago, I doubt even Trish herself would have expected to see A Soldier's Hands as developed as it has become. That growth is due in great part to her efforts, though. Even when the tasks seemed impossible, Trish trusted that the job would get done and since the beginning, ASH has always delivered,” he adds.

This reliable deliverance means more to the beneficiaries than some might assume. While plenty of nonprofits and other organizations send care packages to the troops, A Soldier’s Hands fills a need that many don’t see.

Major David VanHorn, Mark Edhegard’s captain when that initial delivery was received, elaborates: “What the Army provides you with is soap that’ll take two or three layers of skin off. The ChapStick is going to be dried out and useless. As far as the toiletries, we go to the shopette and rack up on little 99-cent things you can stow away and, half the time, it’s going to get busted open in transit or while you’re on patrol, or you’re going to go through it quickly. …The quality of the stuff is never on your mind, you just need something. …The Army provides you with the bare minimum of those types of items but nothing of the quality and the quantity that [A Soldier’s Hands] was sending.

“Having that type of stuff to bathe with and then put on before what you knew would be a really long move from one end of the country to the other, it made a big difference for all my guys,” he adds. “We really appreciate that [A Soldier’s Hands] put the thought into it, not just the effort.”

That thought was celebrated by VanHorn and his men when they returned from Iraq, as they made Shallenberger their guest of honor at their homecoming party and then later honored her with the Minuteman Award for Support at a ceremony in Alabama.

These kinds of shows of gratitude are hardly rare, though. Shallenberger frequently receives thank-you letters from recipients and it’s her hope that every recipient sees the support for our armed forces that goes into every box.

“Not everyone has someone at home that’s their cheerleader,” she says. “I feel like that’s kind of our role. We’ll be their cheerleaders. We can let them know that they matter. The suicide rate among veterans that come home is really high – what if receiving a care package from us … maybe that would be something that would tell them they do matter. … I don’t know if I'm reaching, but I know what we do makes a difference. That’s what keeps us going.”

It’s a big impact that, as Shallenberger says, all “started with a young man who was thinking about his whole unit, and a promise I made to him that we fulfilled.”


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Holly Riddle is a freelance writer in State College.

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