Operation Shoebox celebrates 10 years and 90,000 packages
DATE POSTED: Wednesday, February 18, 2015 5:28 PM EST
By Gene Robbins, Managing Editor
When he was a high school lad pursuing his Eagle Scout award in 1969, teenager Rod Hirsch saw his fellow Scouts fulfilling their community service obligation by clearing trails and building park benches.
At the height of the Vietnam War, he had an unusual and incendiary notion for the day — to send “goodie bags” to soldiers in Vietnam. His arguments carried the day, and for a year or more he sought and organized donations and mailings abroad.
Little did he think that germ of an idea in Boy Scouting would turn into a fulltime preoccupation 40 years later for Mr. Hirsch, now 62.
Mr. Hirsch is the spirit and force behind Operation Shoebox New Jersey, an ever-expanding idea that brings hundreds of volunteers together several times a year to remind service members abroad that they are remembered and appreciated.
“We’re not a political organization. We’re a humanitarian one,” he said Tuesday. “We try to take care of our men and women overseas.”
On Saturday, working one of two annual packing events in the Manville VFW, volunteers assembled more than 1,000 six-to-eight-pound boxes of personal items and snacks to be shipped overseas.It was also an opportunity to stop and appreciate a decade of public service for Operation Shoebox. Mr. Hirsch was given two rarely presented medallions — one from Governor Chris Christie and one from the state’s top military officer — for his service.Brigadier General Michael L. Cunniff, who, as adjutant general, commands more than 9,000 soldiers and airmen of the New Jersey Army and Air National Guard, was on hand in uniform to make the presentation.The governor commended Mr. Hirsch by letter for positively answering the question of Martin Luther King Jr. — that “Life’s most persistent and urgent questions is ‘what are you doing for others?’”As is normal with Shoebox packages, each soldier’s gift will have two boxes of Girl Scout cookies, three bags of loose candy, soaps and lotions, and sundry items like puzzle books and canned tuna.Every box will carry some handwritten notes from citizens or kids. This week, there were a lot of Valentines from the Hamilton School in Bridgewater, Mr. Hirsch said.Mr. Hirsch is the first to deflect the praise to the hundreds of volunteers who help organize events and continue to donate money and items and time to the effort.
For instance, Manville dentist Dr. Gary Small stood inside the rectangle of tables ready to refill bins from which a constantly moving line of young and old, big and small volunteers plucked items to fill zip-locking plastic bags with the variety of items.
Much of the candy was donated from “buy back” campaigns of Halloween candy by Dr. Small and other dentists.
“Sometimes I just stand back, look around and think ‘holy cow,’” Mr. Hirsch said. It’s overwhelming to think the idea I had would have such lasting power and impact so many lives on both sides of the ocean.”
Before Shoebox, Mr. Hirsch’s passion was as a career newspaperman for 35 years. He left the weekly Somerset Reporter, a successor to the Somerset Messenger–Gazette, in 2007. He still writes freelance and teaches journalism classes at Rider University.
One day, while putting together a feature page for the Reporter, he saw two stories about individuals’ efforts to pursue the same objective of gift packages — examples of caring, sharing and patriotism. It occurred to him that the weekly newspaper might be able to latch onto the idea as a marketing promotion.
His bosses approved, and in February 2005 he held an organization meeting. Steve Kalafer, a major auto sales businessman in Hunterdon and a part owner of the Somerset Patriots, stepped forward with kind words about Mr. Hirsch and a $5,000 check as seed money.
“When he did that, I knew this was going to work,” said Mr. Hirsch.
Today, in addition to earning a living, Mr. Hirsch’s mind is a constant whirlwind. He woos corporate donations in one moment, arranges packing hall sites in the next and checks in with volunteers in a third. He figures out when he can fill his small truck with 24 boxes and take them from Operation Shoebox’s base in the Veterans Industrial Park in northern Hillsborough to the Manville post office for mailing.