Two of the sweetest words any service member could ever hear. It meant hearing from a friend or family member, someone who was encouraging and could lift your spirits. It meant receiving a “care package” of items unavailable wherever you were, or your favorite home-baked cookies for which you savored for days and hid from your mates.
Mail call was held at the Veterans Home of California-Chula Vista a couple of days ago. It still prompted the excited expectations of receiving a letter.
In this instance, the Home’s veterans opened letters from people they’d never met and might never meet. Letters written to brighten their day. Letters written to say “Thank you!” for serving their nation. Letters written, in some small way, to make a difference in the veterans’ lives.
A large envelope containing these letters arrived at the Home on March 20. The letters themselves were quarantined for more than two weeks as part of the protocol for protecting residents and staff. They were handed out on Tuesday, to well-spaced veterans, in one of the lobby areas, said Shannon Campbell, the Home’s public information officer.
While the U.S. Postal Service delivered these letters, they came from the hearts of the many people who joined the “campaign of caring” created in March by long-time Chula Vista high school teacher, Mariana Hughes.
As the coronavirus swept through a Washington (state) nursing home last month, Hughes was struck by the fear and loneliness the patients and staff of the facility must be feeling. “I had seen the reports out of Washington,” Hughes said. “It was the center of the spread (of the coronavirus) and they were really locking down. No visitors allowed. How sad for the families. …”
She knew care homes in the San Diego area would soon lock down their own to visitors as well. So, she became proactive and researched care homes in the Chula Vista area of southern San Diego County.
The Chula Vista Veterans Home was among those that stood out to her. It is where military veterans and their spouses live; her father-in-law served in the Marine Corps, and two of her husband’s grandparents served in World War II. There is a respect and reverence within her family for those who served.
She knows a number of people, including current and former high school students, who have done volunteer work that benefitted the Home. So on March 16, she posted her plan on Facebook, tagging 64 friends.
“If you are looking to do something POSITIVE during this Coronavirus uncertainty, please consider mailing letters of well-wishes and support to residents of convalescent homes who are not allowed to have visitors; they need our LOVE!”
Immediately they signed on, with some sharing Hughes’ message on their own Facebook pages. Hughes’ 14-year-old son, Christian, began writing letters, and Hughes invited some of her high school students to do the same, since schools were closing and they were homebound as well.
Now, three weeks into her campaign, she estimates that it has generated at least 200 letters to the Home in San Diego, with a strong likelihood that some friends wrote to other care homes elsewhere. She and Christian were featured in a story that aired on San Diego’s ABC station, and that no doubt generated even more interest and letters.
The veterans at the Chula Vista Home were moved and appreciative when they read them on Tuesday, Campbell said, and even more so when they realized many of the letters came from teens.
One, an Army veteran named Mary, told Campbell, “They are so young, only in high school or junior high, and it is amazing they are thinking beyond themselves.” Mary served in Germany in the mid-1970s as an operator for the Military Affiliate Radio System. “So (receiving a letter) was kind of a sweet parallel with her career, helping other veterans communicate with loved ones when they could not physically be there,” Campbell said.
Pete, another Army veteran, told Campbell he’d like to write them back to say “Thank you.”
Others have stepped up in different ways. The Home’s employees received 300 hand-sewn facemasks from Asian Joining Hands, a non-profit in the San Diego area. The masks are made of lively colors and prints, intended to boost staff and residents’ morale along with providing protection for all.
More letters are on their way, Hughes said. Writing them is good for the soul, as both she and her son will attest. “Some of it is to relieve the emotional stress, and being a cheerleader,” she said. “We hope when they read these, some of the burden is lifted. We write to let them know they are not alone.”
Mail call. Still as important as ever.