FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. - Operation Holiday Cheer, a project initiated by the nonprofit Fayetteville Cares, brought more than 600 volunteers to the Crown Expo Center Wednesday to Friday and is estimated to have cost nearly $500,000, said Joanne Chavonne, co-chairwoman of Fayetteville Cares.

What may be a lesser-known fact is that the idea for OHC originated with Chavonne's husband, Fayetteville Mayor Tony Chavonne, she said. Discussions for the project began as early as last summer.

"I thought it was a great idea. At first, that idea seemed big and overwhelming, but we all embraced it and thought it would be a great way to show the Soldiers that we support them in all that they do," Chavonne said.

Fayetteville Cares sent 10,000 care packages to deployed Soldiers and Airmen Saturday in a project dubbed Operation Holiday Cheer. The packages were assembled Wednesday to Friday and mailed Saturday from The Crown Expo Center, a facility that donated its space for OHC.
Niki Foxx and her children, RJ and Alex, volunteered to stuff boxes Thursday. It seemed to provide an opportunity to teach a valuable lesson.

"I think it's great to teach them at an early age to give back to the military community as well as the Fayetteville community," Foxx said. Her husband, Maj. Gregory Foxx serves with the 8th Psychological Operations Battalion.

Lucy Santillan, of Fayetteville, helped carry boxes for packaging. They were nearly as tall as her short frame.

When asked why she wanted to volunteer, the bright, 6-year-old said, "Because it's fun."
First announced in July at the Airborne and Special Operations Museum, sponsorship for OHC was secured from several businesses and organizations.

Carolina Chevy Dealers donated two, 2010 Cobalts: one to be given to a deployed Soldier and the other as a prize Saturday to a ticket raffle winner from Wade.

Other sponsors included Food Lion, donators of lemonade drink mix; Pratt Industries, suppliers of the boxes and cash donations from Progress Energy, Fayetteville-Cumberland County Chamber of Commerce and Hay Street United Methodist Church, among others.

Box sponsorships could also be obtained for $25, Chavonne said.
"It really was a way to engage the community and give them a way to participate," she said.
Each package contained items such as lemonade drink mix, a disposable camera, playing cards, wipes, power energy bar, several packages of gum, phone card, a "D" ring and a postcard registration form for the Chevrolet Cobalt.

The Junior League of Fayetteville ensured that each box also contained a handwritten note from someone, usually a child, in the community to the Soldier, Chavonne said.

Jenny Beaver, who helped organize volunteers at the Crown Expo Center, said she joined Fayetteville Cares during its Boots & Booties campaign that was held November 2008. The campaign, billed as the world's largest baby shower for expectant mothers at Fort Bragg, earned Fayetteville recognition as a pro-military town.

The schedule for volunteers was done on spreadsheets, Beaver said. It was important that the right number of volunteers showed up each day, and not having too many for one day and not enough for another.

"You can imagine the outpouring of volunteers that we received to our Web site," Beaver said.
Adrian Baptiste, a member of the Fort Bragg United Service Organization, said he volunteered each day. Baptiste spent Saturday placing labels on packages.

"Anything we can do to help, whether its coming together for these care packages or keeping Families occupied, is pretty much rewarding in and of itself," said Baptiste, who is the son of a retired 82nd Airborne Division Soldier.

The community is always looking for ways to help Soldiers, but has not always known how to do so, said Chavonne. Operation Holiday Cheer gave the community that opportunity.

"This community has a long history of supporting our military neighbors and they have proved it again with this project," Chavonne said. "Across the board, we've gotten overwhelming support."
On the warfront in Afghanistan, Soldiers phoned the Crown Expo Center Saturday to say how much they appreciate the support.

"It's really good to have people from back home send us stuff when we can't be home with our Family," said Spc. David Neal, of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 82nd Brigade Special Troops Battalion. "It makes us feel good to know that people appreciate the sacrifices we made coming over here and not spending that time with our loved ones. It's always good to know that people are thinking about you."

Neal said he plans to put the disposable camera to good use.
"The view over here is great. We have a lot of mountains. Any time you get a chance to go out, it's good to get pictures of the landscape and of you and your comrades together for whenever we leave here," he said.

Spc. Marino Gaggini, also of HHC, 82nd BTSB, agrees. In a telephonic interview from Afghanistan, the 27-year-old Flat Rock, Mich. native said that he might want to pay the gift forward when he returns to Fort Bragg.

"Getting the package will definitely mean a lot and it will make me think about when I'm over there, maybe I'll want to do the same thing for someone here," Gaggini said.

Maj. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the 82nd Airborne Division commander, telephoned to say that the packages also convey an important message to servicemembers.

"It's one way that Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines, who are over here serving their country making sacrifices know that their sacrifice is appreciated by the citizens of their country," Scaparrotti said.

The packages are a morale booster, said Col. Steve Sicinski, Fort Bragg garrison commander. He said Fayetteville earns its reputation of being the most Family-friendly city in America.

"I am amazed every time I see one of these events of support on behalf of the Soldiers and Families that are stationed at Fort Bragg. I am a part of this community, this wonderful partnership that allows us to do what we do and do it well," Sicinski said.

"It may seem like a small gesture to you sitting at home in case you've never been a part of the military on a deployment, but I can tell you from personal experience that when a Soldier down range gets a package from his community, the place that he calls home, where he's left his Family behind in their care, it means a world of good."