Seven years ago, it was easy to get people to donate snacks and personal care supplies to send to military members serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. The wars were big news, and everybody wanted to lend a hand.
Sheila Wilmouth had all the help she could handle for her Soldiers Far From Home project and had plenty of supplies to make four shipments a year in advance of Easter, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
As the wars waged on and the economy faltered, donations and helpers became harder to find.
"The last couple of years, people wanted to donate, but they really don't have any extra," Wilmouth said. "It's a struggle for so many people just to keep a job."
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So now it's down to Wilmouth and her daughter, Gini Mercado. They spend the year gathering shampoo, granola bars and even toys for a shipment in early December.
"I'm determined to do this until the wars are over," said Wilmouth, whose Newman home looks like a convenience store the weeks before she ships her care packages.
Wilmouth's family has strong ties to the military. Another daughter is a Johansen High School graduate, served in the Marines for eight years and is considering returning. Her son-in-law, a staff sergeant, has served six tours of duty in the Middle East.
Wilmouth started with a mission to bring a little bit of home to those serving far away. She hits up stores, community groups, even her dentist for donations.
"To date, we have shipped over 9,240 pounds of items to our troops," she said.
That much shipping is costly: Wilmouth has paid up to $500 per shipment. She's focused on West Coast-based military units after realizing it was cheaper to do so.
"We pay to get them to the base," she said. "The military takes them from there."
Over the years, Wilmouth has helped a couple of Boy Scouts earn their Eagle Scout honors by collecting for her effort. And she's served as a resource for people who want to give but don't know how, including an insurance office in Roseville that collects items for the effort.
One of the things most needed doesn't cost any money.
"Soldiers love to get letters, especially from kids," Wilmouth said. "We used to get classes that would write letters, or church groups."
A friend of Wilmouth's who taught school assigned the letters as a class project, but she's retired. Mercado now home-schools her children, so they don't have classmates she can ask.
"If someone brought us 10 letters, that would make my day," Mercado said.
It's not unusual to send small toys along with the shipments.
"They give those to local children to build up trust and rapport," Wilmouth said.
The letters they get in return inspire the two women to keep going.
"We put everything you sent us to great use," Randy Ramos, a corpsman from Fremont, wrote in November 2004. "It's the people like you that make the difference for the troops here overseas."
A June 2006 letter from Kelly Christian said: "Y'all made a huge difference in the lives of over 100 soldiers this week. I was happy to see smiles on their faces and a bit of motivation in their step."
Sometimes, the care packages do more than they're intended to do.
One male military member got a care package intended for a woman -- it included tampons.
"He got a lot of ribbing from the other guys about getting tampons," Wilmouth said. But while he was on patrol one day, an insurgent shot a member of the man's unit. With little in the way of medical equipment on hand, he grabbed the tampon, which staunched the bleeding.
"After that, all those guys were asking him for one."
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2343.