Operation Soldier Smiles ... bringing smiles to the front line

  • Published
  • By Laura London
  • 49th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Operation Soldier Smiles is hard at work assembling care packages for service members deployed overseas. The Airman and Family Readiness Center's new satellite office is collecting donations of lip balm, wet wipes, travel tissues and more for this operation; a list of items requested by deployed service members is available from the AFRC.

Operation Soldier Smiles was founded Oct.1, 2004, by Maggie Fazenbaker, an 11-year-old 7th grader at Chaparral Middle School who was concerned about the happiness and well-being of active duty soldiers far from home. Her first inspiration was a care package sent to her father, Paul Fazenbaker, who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"I got to see what was in the box. I thought it was really cool that people from 20 years ago in his life, and some people that didn't even know him, sent him this package," Fazenbaker wrote in a recent e-mail. "I thought I could do something like this, but I didn't know how to get started."

About that time, the wife of a Holloman colonel called Maggie's mother, Annette Fazenbaker, to say they were moving to Hawaii and had some donations from a Ruidoso church which needed to go to the war. The woman told the Fazenbakers Holloman wasn't able to send the items, and she was no longer able to address the situation because of her move to Hawaii. She was hoping the Fazenbakers would be able to find a way to get the items to the soldiers.

After many phone calls, the Fazenbakers determined the Fort Bliss Deployment Center was the place to go with their care merchandise. They took it there the last week of Sept. 2004.

"They (Ft. Bliss personnel) talked to us and told us they hadn't had any care packages in at least six months," Fazenbaker wrote. "They thought people were forgetting because the war wasn't new news anymore.

"They gave us a list of what was acceptable to send and what was not allowed. We figured out what we could put in ZiplocĀ® bags was just as much as a soldier could carry in his jump pockets."

Fazenbaker's class had been doing a book drive, and Maggie asked the principal if she could do a care package drive as a community service project.

"Everyone expected it to last about two months," Fazenbaker wrote. "When the school was done, I could not quit. I got a letter from a soldier that received one of our packages. He was a middle school teacher that taught special ed in West Virginia; he was called up on reserve duty. His letter was so wonderful. He had a grandson my age. He missed his students, and I felt like he was just like ... people I knew. I could not quit."

Maggie is now 13 and a 9th grader at Alamogordo High School, and she is still sending smiles to soldiers overseas. Her father drives the donations to Ft. Bliss in his pickup truck whenever they have a load--sometimes every two months, but nothing regular because donations are not regular, according to Annette Fazenbaker. The Fazenbakers do not have to pay any shipping charges, and the care packages are dropped along with supplies all over the war zone--not only for Air Force, but for all active duty members. According to Annette Fazenbaker, Maggie's mother, they have sent 2,269 care packages so far.

The AFRC is now involved, accepting donations at its satellite office in Bldg. 787 across the street from the Base Exchange.

"They (the Fazenbakers) contacted our director about it ... she brought it to me and I said, 'Let's run with this, let's do this!'" said Susan Stringer, AFRC community readiness technician. "I was real excited about being able to do something for soldiers overseas."

For her efforts, Maggie was chosen as a Prudential Spirit of Community winner for New Mexico in 2005. Prudential sent her to Washington, D.C., to receive $1,000 along with a silver medallion at an awards ceremony held at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, where she met former Secretary of State Colin Powell. She was also one of 12 kids, out of 1,500 nominations, to be named a 2006 Build-A-Bear Workshop Huggable Hero in June. Build-A-Bear donated $2,500 for the care packages. Maggie said the president of Build-A-Bear told the Bonne Belle Company about Operation Soldier Smiles, and Bonne Bell sent 1,000 spf lip balms for the packages, 600 of which are in the hands of soldiers right now.

Maggie said she receives donations from Tularosa Rotary Club, the VFW, Mayhill Extension Club and more, which she picks up at the extension office in Alamogordo.
"They even gave me crafts to sell at the autumn market at St. John's Church on the 4th (of November)," Maggie said. "That gave me about $100 more to put toward the packages."