Santa's Helpers

Stockings for the Troops gives soldiers overseas a merry Christmas

Red Cross volunteer Helga Schoennagel finishes another stocking.

Photo by Lance Shearer

Red Cross volunteer Helga Schoennagel finishes another stocking.

One of Santa’s busiest helpers lives right here in Collier County. Helga Schoennagel specializes in helping out our soldiers overseas, creating more than 1,000 Christmas stockings to send them each year – but she could use your help helping them. Time is short, and donations are needed now.

Schoennagel is a volunteer for the American Red Cross, and has made it her mission to provide all the stockings that the local Red Cross office will send to our men and women overseas.

“Helga is one of our best volunteers,” said Jeremy Gentile, armed forces coordinator for the American Red Cross Southern Gulf Region. “It’s amazing how she makes all those stockings.”

But now, he added, “we’re looking for stuff” – stuff to stuff into the stockings, to send to the troops. “Big things for the soldiers would be items like beef jerky, power bars, gum, small snacks, drink mixes, or fun things like dice, playing cards, or iTunes cards to put music on their iPods.”

Gentile knows what he’s talking about when he speaks of what troops overseas might want. The former staff sergeant was an active duty Marine from 1997 to 2009, with numerous deployments in both Iran and Afghanistan.

“I remember when I was over there, seeing the faces of Marines who got nothing” when their buddies were opening packages, said Gentile. “That’s basically not right, and that’s why we’re doing this.”

Money is also welcome, and perhaps the most valuable donation.

“After we’re done sorting, we’ll see what we’re short on, and then if we have cash, we can go buy those items,” said Gentile. All of the donated items will go to active duty military personnel in combat areas, distributed by their immediate superiors, who know best where the packages will do the most good.

“We’ve got a platoon sergeant in Afghanistan with 140 Marines under him, and a lieutenant who’s a Blackhawk pilot with 60 or 70 reports,” said Gentile as examples. “

The local Red Cross has been sending the packages to the troops since 2003. Putting them into actual stockings, said Gentile, “makes it more fun – a real touch of home.”

Helga Schoennagel fires up her high tech computerized sewing machine, and whips off a stocking, sewing the two sides together and then attaching a ribbon.

“I can do 100 in a day, but after a ‘vile,’ you can’t see straight,” she said in the German accent she has never lost, despite immigrating to Canada in 1964 and coming to the United States in 1973.

She has already finished more than 1,100 stockings for this Christmas shipment, and is well into production for next Christmas. “I already have 250 done,” she said – but if there was so much “stuff” to stuff into stockings this year, maybe she would just have to make more.

The deadline for donations was supposed to be Monday, Nov. 4, dropped off at the Red Cross offices in Naples or Fort Myers, but Gentile said they would accept items all week rather than disappoint the troops.

So when you open your gifts, give yourself the satisfaction of knowing that on the other side of the world, our soldiers are opening gifts from you as well.The public is invited to assist in stocking sorting and stocking stuffing. Those who are interested must sign up in advance by emailing kenny.howell@redcross.org.

For additional information about Stockings for the Troops and a list of items being requested by the military visit: naplesnews.com/news/2013/oct/30/red-cross-seeks-stocking-stuffers-stockings-for.

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