Jun. 18—WATERTOWN — In the communities around Fort Drum, an effort is underway to provide support for military children and families, along with their loved ones overseas.
Teddy bears will be gathered for children left at home, while supplies, gifts and written letters will be collected and shipped to soldiers overseas.
Operation Community Hearts is the revamping of an effort from years ago that began with a then preteen Gavin E. Moran, who started a teddy bear drive at his family's duty station of Fort Hood, Texas, as a bar mitzvah service project. This time, the efforts are headed by his parents Crystal D. and Allen G. Moran, with help from his brother Hunter A. Moran, local businesses, and Gavin himself from states away.
"Because it touched his life so much, he wanted to do something for military kids," Mrs. Moran said of the origins of the drive Gavin began. "His father was deployed a lot, at least four times on main deployments to Afghanistan or Iraq, and then multiple tours that were just like regular training missions. My son received a teddy bear that he named Teddy when he was really little, given to him by his father, and it became his comfort when his dad was gone. He tapped into that, issued this project, and asked me for help."
Mrs. Moran, who now works in distribution at the Times, recalls not knowing what to do the first time around. But now she knows how to get the project rolling. In Fort Hood, the family contacted news outlets to get the word out and found places to collect. Organizations and businesses allowed the family to place collection boxes at their sites. They gathered roughly 500 bears when the family was at Fort Hood.
As distribution got underway, Gavin did lots of talking and reaching out to people, Mrs. Moran said. When his father returned to the U.S., the family relocated to Fort Huachuca, Arizona, where the second phase of the drive began. With some bears left over from the Fort Hood collection, they wanted to figure out a way to distribute them out to the community again, so Mrs. Moran and Gavin shared their idea with the community.
"We had the same reception, a lot of businesses wanted to get on board," Mrs. Moran said. "By the time this whole thing was done, he had collected a thousand bears, it was pretty big. At that point, it reached a national level where a lot of people got information about what was going on."
Gavin is now 25 and living in a different state than his family, but he still wants to be part of the drive.
This revamped drive will bring back his original teddy bear focus and add care packages for deployed soldiers and support for families. The project is in its early stages. The goal now is to spread the word and gather volunteers and donations.
"I'm hoping to go even farther than we did last time and reach more than just Fort Drum eventually. I'd like to try to hit multiple military installations," Gavin said. "I know what it's like being a military kid and having at least one parent gone all the time and not really knowing how to navigate that. For me, the teddy bear filled a void, so I want the same thing for a bunch of military kids. I just hope that the teddy bear drive can bring some type of comfort and let them know they're not the only ones going through this. I'm excited to get it up and running again and see where it goes this time."
Gavin's family around Watertown were never actually stationed at Fort Drum, but moved to the area because Mrs. Moran's sister lived in the area. She said it doesn't matter where you are or who you are, it's a brotherhood, a sisterhood, and a family life. It doesn't matter if you are active duty or if you're retired, you're still connected in some way.
Mrs. Moran, who owns the jewelry store Alternatively Sassy in the Salmon Run Mall with her husband, said she has already secured a few businesses' support. She wants to form a committee to manage the project. For the teddy part of the operation, the plan is to collect unused teddy bears through the summer and begin distribution in August in collaboration with groups on base. As for the care packages and letters, the sooner they can be sent out, the better.
"I'm looking at starting this month, it would just be a matter of getting the volunteers to do it," Mrs. Moran said. "If nothing else, I'm going to be doing it by myself with my family. I also want to have some type of communication, letters or cards, a chain to start sending those letters on a regular basis so at least those soldiers are getting a connection to our community still."
Deployed several times over his 20 years of service, Mr. Moran, who retired as a sergeant 1st class, is no stranger to being on the receiving end of such care packages and communications. He recalls sharing his spoils with his soldiers when he'd receive a package and seeing how it lifted spirits.
"It's wonderful to get things or letters showing that people outside of your circle care and support you as well, it makes you feel really good," Mr. Moran said. "My hopes are that they will put smiles on their faces while they're deployed away from their families and it'll keep the morale up and give them something to look forward to — especially with the younger soldiers who haven't deployed who've never been away before."
So far, the 315 Artisan Market by Autumn's Originals and a few others are also involved.
Nonperishable snacks like chips and beef jerky are sought for the packages, as well as socks and personal hygiene products and entertainment items like playing cards, books, magazines and crossword puzzles.
For the families at home, ideas are in the works for events — paint and sip for spouses, canvas painting classes for the family, raffles and more. A "Healing Through the Arts" event is also being planned by Gavin's brother Hunter, who participated in a similar project in middle school using art to express the emotions he couldn't verbalize when his father was deployed.
"I made a little project for my school and a lot of military kids were able to make art and we did a huge art gallery," he said. "The whole school expressed stuff they usually can't express into a sheet of paper and it was displayed and then was able to be brought to wounded warriors. I wanted to bring it back in a sense but for the community, so it will allow anybody holding any kind of emotional stuff to be able to put it on a piece of paper and help them heal, thus the healing through the arts. And it's good for all ages, anybody can come in and just draw have fun."
At the next Food Truck Frenzy event this year, which will be held June 26 and hosted by Autumn's Originals, there will be a table to collect donations for the project as well as stationary to write letters or sign cards to be sent to soldiers.
Eventually, the goal is to maintain lists with requests from the soldiers themselves.
"When they know that their families have a community that backs them and supports them, it puts the soldier at ease," Mrs. Moran said. "They know that there are people in the community that are making that extra effort to offer that support to them. When my husband was deployed, it meant the world to me to know that my neighbor or somebody down the street cared about what was happening in my home, with my spouse and with my children. I think that because of those situations, that has created the mindset that I have to be able to offer that because it was given to me and I want to do that for other people."