Community shows thankfulness to local service members

Loving newlyweds Jonathan and Ashley Steele may have tied he knot early this October, but their first holiday season as a married couple will likely prove to be one of their toughest.

Tom Carper: Sen. Tom Carper stopped by the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce to sign cards and help out with Operation Thank You.Coastal Point • RUSLANA LAMBERT
Sen. Tom Carper stopped by the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce to sign cards and help out with Operation Thank You.

Less than two weeks after the wedding, Lance Cpl. Jonathan Steele, a Marine, was off to Iraq, stationed northeast of Baghdad for nearly eight months.

Although his wife, Ashley, and mother, Sarah Swift, are coping with getting through the holidays without Jonathan, the Bethany-Fenwick Chamber of Commerce has done its part to remind the family that their community cares about all its service members overseas and to remind the community that it truly is better to give than to receive.

The Chamber recently headed Operation Thank You, which ran for the first time this year between Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving, collecting donations of needed items to be sent to local community members serving in the armed forces.

“I’m so overwhelmed that the outcome has been so great,” said Swift. “This will be my first Christmas away from Jonathan, and it’s lonely over there, so anything they can get from people they know care for them, they will appreciate.”

Over the past month, the Chamber has collected personal hygiene items, food, phone cards and entertainment materials, such as DVDs, for Steele and others. Community members signed “thank you” cards, offering well-wishes and support. Monetary donations were also collected to help accommodate shipping costs. A local women’s club even made hats for the soldiers to wear under their helmets to keep them warm through the winter months.

“We have a Chamber member who owns a UPS store who is going to help us package everything,” said Chamber Executive Director Karen McGrath, “and we are using donation money from members and from our own community fund to help pay for shipping. Hopefully, this will all be shipped out Friday.”

Leading in to the drive, the Chamber was also notified about two other local soldiers, both serving with the U.S. Army in Iraq: PFC Ryan Strafer of Dagsboro and Army Specialist Jon Frey of Selbyville. Portions of the donations that were collected in Operation Thank You will be sent to their divisions, too.

Delaware Sen. Tom Carper stopped by the Chamber on Monday to meet Ashley Steele and Sarah Swift and sign the cards as well.

“The soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines need to know that they have our support,” said Carper. “Whether or not people support the war or the idea of war efforts, they support the soldier. It’s a great message we’re sending here.”

Carper referenced his time serving in the Navy. “You tend to become close with the men in your division,” he said, “and it’s nice to be helping them out.”

Ashley Steele is anxiously awaiting the return of her husband on May 15, 2008.

“We promised him that we will recreate everything for him,” said Steele of this holiday season. “We’re redoing Thanksgiving for him, and the Christmas tree will still be set up when he gets home. It’s hard right now, but we’re getting through it.”

McGrath, who helped assemble the effort, said she wanted to help be there for the families.

“Jonathan’s mother had contacted me, and it was right before Veteran’s Day, and we always like to do something special,” McGrath said. “Then we found out about the other two soldiers overseas. We offered it out to the community. Here’s a chance to say, ‘Thank you,’ and celebrate Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving in a really special way.” McGrath referenced a quote from W.J. Cameron, who said, “Thanksgiving, after all, is a word of action.”

“I thought that was pretty cool and meaningful,” she said. “Let’s give people the opportunity to actually give thanks and make it an action. It’s an honor to help these folks out. You see the stuff on the news and, automatically, you want to help out. We have a great community here.”