The 74,000 packages that Operation Minnesota Nice has sent to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have contained everything from batteries to beef jerky, from CDs to sunscreen. But the main goal all along has been to give men and women in uniform something less tangible:
A slice of home.
And a slice of hope.
Or, as Denise Jorgensen, the organization's founder, put it, "Anything that for just a few minutes when they open that box, they can forget where they are."
Small wonder, then, that the group's website (www.operationminnesotanice.com) contains testimonials such as this from a troop leader:
"We are coming home safe because of you. Not me ... YOU! I can only train and mentor them to fight in combat. You provided them with hope. You gave us the presence of mind to know that someone back home cares."
That's all Jorgensen, 44, of Ramsey, ever wanted -- on an exponentially smaller scale -- when she decided to "adopt" three soldiers in 2004 by regularly sending them packages filled with goods from home.
"I was sharing the idea with my family at dinner, and everyone said, 'Hey, don't be greedy -- give me a name,'" she said. "And soon friends of family and fellow church members of friends said, 'Hey, we want to send a box.'"
Before she knew it, Jorgensen was overseeing the efforts of 63 packing groups statewide and had built a three-car garage to store materials and donated goods. The packages often have themes: Vikings, State Fair (everything on a stick), superheroes, holidays and even picnics (with plastic ants).
She spends 35 to 40 hours a week -- besides her full-time job -- on Operation Minnesota Nice and is especially proud that her brigade is all volunteers.
"I have yet to find anything as rewarding, so pure and giving," she said.
On the other side of the world, Sgt. First Class Brian Thole of Blaine saw how much the packages meant after sending the names of his Minnesota National Guard platoon members to Jorgensen.
"I didn't tell them, and every one of my people got packages, and they went, 'Wow, we had no idea,'" said Thole, who is on a break from combat as part of a Minneapolis Police SWAT team. "Some guys rarely got mail, and to get something from a stranger was a very big deal."
Many of the troops end up corresponding with their benefactors. One soldier in a remote region of Afghanistan scrawled a missive on a cut-out piece of a cardboard box, Jorgensen said. Another service member, who had never previously corresponded, eventually sent just a photo and a card.
Jorgensen said, "The only thing [the soldier] wrote on this card was, 'In the darkness shines the light of an angel.'"
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643