REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- In the weeks to come, Soldiers in Afghanistan will receive a long-distance hug from students at Madison's Heritage Elementary.

Cupid will travel an extra long way to deliver the Valentines for Troops, the care package outreach of Heritage Elementary's fifth-grade class. Students of the school came together in February to collect and bag the special goodies for the Soldiers.

"I used to be in the military," said teacher Anthony Graham, who was in the Air Force and came up with the care package idea. "It's tough to be over there. We wanted to make them feel at home and to just take care of the troops."

E-mails were sent to parents in search of the basic necessities any Soldier would need while overseas. The response, Graham said, was overwhelming, as shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, baby wipes and packs of gum came flooding in.

"A pack of gum is going to make their day," Graham told his students.
While last year the care packages were a project for just Graham's classroom, this year the outreach expanded to all the fifth-grade classrooms at Heritage. Ninety-two students from the three fifth-grade classes at Heritage filled 95 clear plastic bags with the goodies and each wrote a Soldier a special Valentine thanking them for their service.

"You rock!" Nigel Miller said on his decorated creation. "Thank you for serving our country."

"We're thinking of you and thank you for being over there," Griffin Bunch said he wrote in his card.

With the assistance of Maj. James Edmonds, a class parent, as well as Soldier at Redstone Arsenal, for the past two years Graham has been able to find Soldiers across the world in need of these care packages. Having been deployed himself, Edmonds understands the value of these special gifts.

"It's a big morale booster," Edmonds said. "Especially when the kids write letters telling you thanks. It really means that hey, look, you're doing something right."

Graham's class typically does three to four service projects a year, this being one of them. While they do receive thanks for their work - last year's troops invited them to their homecoming in Birmingham, which they were unfortunately unable to attend - the students realize they're not doing it for the recognition.

"They're away from home and they don't have everything there that they have here," Miller said. "It helped us to be a better person for trying to help them keep their cleanliness."

For Edmonds, the lesson is a familiar one for his children.

"My kids have known nothing but the military," said Edmonds, who has served for more than 22 years. "I just want them to know that their dad has been lucky to have been around, because not all dads are that way. They understand that war is a dangerous thing."

Graham is already looking to up the ante for next year's Valentines for Troops, hoping to expand the outreach beyond Heritage's doors to all the fifth-grade classrooms in Madison, as well as bringing in Soldiers to speak to students about what they like to receive when overseas and how much they appreciate it.