When Vickie Durfee's son was first stationed overseas, the military mom decided to package up some gifts to send to his girlfriend. It was the beginning of a great idea.
Her son, a Marine, was so happy at the outcome that Durfee decided to do the same thing for the other 12 men in his squad in Iraq. From there she came up with the idea of an organization that would send gift boxes to the spouses and girlfriends of military personnel deployed overseas, an idea that would become the non-profit organization Full Circle Home.
From there the program spread to include gifts for mothers as well, including Mother's Day gifts for the moms of both male and female military personnel. It was a huge hit, Durfee says.
"After we started doing this, my phone started ringing and women were telling me how much they appreciated it," she says. "I spent an hour talking with a mom on Christmas Day, and there was really a sense that this was so important to them."
The organization goes to great lengths to ensure that the boxes are not just from Full Circle Home but from the service members themselves. Each parcel sent includes a handwritten love note from the service member to the recipient.
No personal information is included about the packer, Durfee notes, because the point is not for the recipient to feel obligated to contact or thank that person.
Since starting in fall 2007, Full Circle Home has quickly grown to an organization with a nationwide reach. This year the organization will wrap about 6,000 Christmas gifts, spreading as it increases its connections to military bases and hospitals.
Last year the organization took boxes directly to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, bringing them from room to room to allow the service members there to write notes and personalize their gift boxes.
The trip was especially inspiring to Durfee, who says it made her want to do even more.
"You can't go into Walter Reed and come out unchanged," she says. "You just look at yourself and say, 'What is holding me back?' These guys have so much strength."
Full Circle Home also sends representatives to Fort Drum near Watertown, speaking with service members just before they leave for deployment to tell them about the program.
"It's kind of raw because they leave in two days, and writing the love note releases emotions that many of them are trying to keep down, but it's also an important thing for them to do," Durfee says.
She found help to expand the organization. In 2006, Durfee had a chance meeting with Lisa Miller as both women waited at an airport for their sons to return home from deployment. The following year, Miller heard about Full Circle Home and called Durfee to see if she could help, not remembering that they had met before. Slowly the women came to realize they had connected in the past.
"That was October 2007, and it's been inseparable ever since," Miller says. "We always said we would stop doing this when our sons were home safe, and thank God they were both about to return, but we can't seem to stop. Full Circle Home definitely fills a slot no other organization does."
The organization has been increasing its reach and its connections in the last five years. On Dec. 3, members of the organization and volunteers met on Capitol Hill to have a wrapping event sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
But as it expands to cover more gift-giving occasions, including birthdays, the organization must grow in a calculated way, Miller says.
"It's important that we don't grow too big and lose that personal touch," she says. "But at the same time, we ship all over the country and to bases, so there's no lack of demand. Right now we're great with how we operate; we take a lot of pride knowing that we're the last hands to physically put each part in the box and match the label with each card. It's so personal."
The gift boxes are created on what Durfee describes as an enormous assembly line; all are made with the same list of gift items. The contents are for pampering, with several beauty products, lotions and specialty chocolate.
But the first part of the gift box is selected very carefully, Durfee says.
"When the women open the letters, they usually start crying, so we thought that the first thing they get should be tissues," she says. "So we put a vinyl purse in with tissues and a sleeve inside, so they can keep the note with them in their purse."
The organization is lean, Durfee says, with an annual budget of roughly $100,000. To generate the revenue needed to fill and send the boxes, Full Circle Home seeks sponsors for the boxes. Each box costs $75 to fill and send.
"When you think about it, a box with 12 specialty gifts for $75 is a great deal," Durfee says.
Full Circle Home does have some corporate sponsors, and its private donors give anything from $5 to $10,000, she says. The organization also leans on its partnership with the USO, which this year will help send out 2,500 boxes on Mother's Day.
Full Circle Home recently established a full board of directors, and as it grows into a fully functioning non-profit, Durfee has kept an eye to the future. Also important for the organization is creating a structure that will allow it to live on.
"We're working to put something in place so it can go on once I step back," she says. "This is a great organization, and we want to make sure it continues on and keeps making a difference for service members and their families."
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