Excited children gathered around a table to hear the stories of former servicemen Monday afternoon at Elmendaro Township Library in Hartford.

“Operation Shoebox” is a program that is part of the summer reading program titled “Every Hero has a Story.”

Not only did the grade school children get to hear stories, they were able to pack care packages and include personal art projects which will be sent to American troops overseas.

“We tried to think of things to do with the kids involving heroes,” said Marcia Sell, director of Elmendaro Township Library. “Instead of going for some abstract hero, we try to go with someone local … our local fire and police departments, our women and men in the service. This is a way to help the kids understand about heroes, but it gives them an opportunity to be somebody’s hero by preparing and mailing this care package to the soldiers. They will also put personal cards in them so the soldiers will know that these packages came from a group of kids.”

Jerry Kelley began by telling the story of his time in the Marine Corps. He talked about being a radio operator and the hardships during his time, letting the kids know it was not an easy life.

“In 1953 or 1954, I showed all of my slides to students at Hartford High School,” he said. “Today and every once in awhile, people still ask me if I have my slides and can tell my story. I was on seven different ships all over the world in the Marines and love retelling my stories. I think this was an excellent idea to make the care boxes. I think the troops who get them will get great use out of them.”

Martin McKay talked about his time keeping the ship logs while in the Navy, and what life was like on an ammunition ship. He stated the mission of his ship was to provide ammunition to other ships.

Jeff Kelley, Jerry’s son, talked about his time spent in the Army and what his service was like during the events of September 11, 2001, when he was a part of the communications battalion.

“It was good for us to be here to speak to let the kids know what soldiers do for our country,” he said. “This will mean a lot to the troops. When I was serving in Iraq, we got care packages like the ones these kids will pack today and it does mean so much. Letters and the art work they are doing will be much appreciated by the soldiers.”

After the servicemen told their stories, some of the children asked them questions.

“I loved hearing the stories today,” said 8-year-old Trinity Windle. “My grandpa was in the Air Force and used to tell me his stories when I was going to sleep. I listened to the stories today and asked questions so I could go back and tell my grandpa that I know some stuff that he doesn’t know. I’m making a picture of two flags and an angel as my art project. I will write a big thank you note to them on the back of the picture. It makes me feel happy and excited that the troops are out there fighting for us.”

Taylor Kelley said she was excited to get to hear her dad, Jeff, and grandpa, Jerry, share their stories and take part in the program.

“I think this will mean a lot to the troops to know that they have our support and we’re thinking of them as they serve our country,” she said.

Kayleigh Olson, 8, said she enjoyed preparing the boxes for the soldiers.

“I think the troops will really like the stuff in the boxes for them and our art work,” she said. “It was fun to do this today. I liked the stories, too. I learned a lot I didn’t know.”

Brooke McAvoy, 9, said she enjoyed the stories the most.

“I liked hearing the story about the army and what the soldier did in the army,” she said. “I think the troops will be happy to get our boxes. It makes me feel really good to do this for them since they really can’t buy things where they are. I feel safe that they are fighting for our freedom and want to thank them.”

Daden Wilson, 7, said he agreed with McAvoy.

“I feel safe when I know soldiers are fighting for my freedom,” he said. “I was born in 2007, so these soldiers that told their stories today were still fighting for everyone’s freedom before I was born. I have always wanted to write a letter to a soldier but never did before, so I was happy to get to do that today.”

Sell said some of the items donated from the Hartford community which were included in the care packages were candy, writing paper and pens, coffee, Gatorade, beef jerky, Girl Scout cookies, books, personal hygiene products, games and music.

“The soldiers who are overseas can’t get a lot of the things we take for granted here,” she said. “This would not have been possible without the grant from the Emporia Community Foundation, which funded our summer reading program. Without them we wouldn’t have been able to do this. This was a wonderful opportunity to teach the kids to give back to the ones who give to us, show them respect and treat them as the hero that they are.”

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