Friday, 25 March 2011

Smiles Across The Miles

Although I haven't been writing much on my blog recently, I don't want you thinking I haven't been doing stuff to support the guys out in Afghan. So I think I'll tell you about a little side-line of mine.

I work with a group of people ("Smiles Across the Miles") out in Estuaryland who send welfare parcels out to the guys on the frontline in Afghanistan.

We're just a small team but we work hard and are very committed. We've been going for a couple of years and have sent out about 3,000 parcels so far. When I say a small team, there's really just three of us - though we do organise packing sessions with local groups, like the scouts, when we can. We're always on the look out for volunteers but, whilst people are very generous with donations (especially when it comes to "our boys"), they seem to lead such busy lives these days that they have little spare time to give.

Anyway, we three do alright. In fact we do so well that the MoD asked us to suspend our operations over the Christmas period so as not to overload "logistics". So we shut down between October and February.

The team is made up of:
The Company Sergeant Major: she's ex-WI, is the inspiration behind the organisation, set it up in 2008 and has been the driving force behind it ever since. Always out looking for ways of raising cash and drumming up support. Knows an awful lot of people. Formidable, I think you'd say.

The Lance-Corporal: that's me. I do the "heavy" work; solid and reliable. I joined up on St George's Day 2009 when I came across the Stall (more about that later) in Basildon Shopping Centre. I just said "hello" and before I knew it I was signed up for 22 years. Anyway, I love it.

The Squaddie: that's our young lad. He's been involved with the group since it started. Amazingly reliable and always ready to help if he can. Eats, lives and breathes the Army. Knows every unit out in Afghan... and probably everywhere else. From the minute he arrives to the minute he leaves, he's talking Army. You'd think it would drive you crazy but it doesn't somehow, in fact it helps the job along.

We also have a Quartermaster who looks after the money.

We're all very patriotic of course. The CSM is very much for "Great Britain", I'm a Little Englander and the Squaddie is of course for "Queen and Country". I've had to fight to ensure that our stall (see below) will be festooned with England flags on St George's Day, rather than the usual Union Flag.

I'll tell you a bit about how we operate. Take this week as an example. We first agreed that we would do packing on Thursday; we are very lucky because we have a local hall where we can do it.

So we're going to pack on Thursday. First thing Monday morning, I telephone a couple of local shoeshops who I know will very kindly save the day's old shoe boxes for us. At 1700 I drive into town with the Squaddie, park in Sainsbury's carpark and collect the shoeboxes from the shops. We normally get about 30 (if we're short I've always got Tuesday to fall back on - thinking ahead, see). Anyway, this Monday we pick up 32 boxes which we take back to Sainsbury's. We go into the shop and spend £5 so we can reclaim our parking fee.

On Wednesday afternoon we - the CSM, the Squaddie and me that is - go to the local cash-and-carry to buy the stuff to fill the 32 boxes. We know exactly what to buy though we are often tempted to pick up the occasional "special" item - this time it was Cadbury's cream eggs (we don't normally send chocolate but, it being Easter and all, we thought we would (we actually sent some out a few weeks ago and got a letter back saying the eggs had caused a riot - good eh?!))

Thursday 1100 we arrive at the hall, put up the tables and lay out the goodies we bought. We're also donated stuff, usually toiletries, and bring these out of the stores. We're very organised with everything placed in order of size and weight with empty boxes at one end and the scales at the other (we can send 2kg for free). It takes about half-an-hour to set up. We all have different roles. The CSM is "the packer" and fills the boxes, the L-Cpl, that's me, is "the wrapper" (brown paper and parcel tape) and the Squaddie mixes the sweets (having thoroughly washed his hands), bundles up teabags and puts the labels on the boxes. So the packer picks up an empty box, walks down the line filling it with goodies, weighs it, adds/subtracts to get the weight right and passes it to the rapper, sorry, wrapper. I put in a "bluey" and one of our greetings postcards, wrap the parcel in our unique SATM way and pass it over to be labelled. A slick operation I can hear you saying. All the time the CSM and the Squaddie are chattering away (on different subjects). Me? Well Im just trying to keep up with the conveyor belt and don't have time to chat.... until the tea break that is.

Thursday 1430 we've packed 32 parcels and it's time to start clearing up - we always aim to leave the hall spick and span. At 1500 we load up my car and we're off to the local post office. Fortunately they know us there and are always very helpful. People joining the queue after us look very depressed when they see our bags of parcels - they think we're eBayers and everything's got to be weighed. Their spirits lift when they hear that we're simply going to leave the stuff and they positively smile when we tell them it's all going to BFPO 758.

And that's it really ...... till the next time.

You might want to know what we put in the parcels - all quality stuff, only the best for our boys and girls! I'll run along the table.... a packet of jammie dodgers, fruit bars, a pack of playing cards, Colegate toothpaste & toothbrush, little tin of vaseline, baby wipes, individual packets of hot chocolate and coffee, cup-a-soups, instant noodles, Wriggleys chewing gum, crisps, mini-chedders, HP sauce sachets, Pot Noodles, individual marmalade, jam and honey potlets, fruit pastilles, Haribo mix, OXO cubes, tea, sherbert dips..... all good, healthy stuff and all with memories of home.

We send the parcels to welfare officers who, we hope, will distribute them to the guys who need them most, those who perhaps haven't got families back home to send them stuff. (We're always on the look out for more welfare officers, so if you know one, get 'em to send me their address!)

I said I'd mention the stall. We have a stall which we put up at local events to raise money to buy the stuff for the parcels. We have lucky dips for kids - one for boys (mini-model-cars, footballs, etc) and one for girls (mini-dolls, bangles, keyrings) - and we also sell things which we have been given but can't send in the parcels (aerosols, glass, big/heavy things). We raise quite a bit of cash. We also use the event for PR - telling people what we do, showing sample parcels - and we have a display board with photos and letters we've received back from Afghan.
So far this year we're booked for St George's Day in Basildon, the Southend Airshow and Armed Forces Day. We also put the stall up in local supermarkets and, really, wherever we can.

It's great to get letters back from Afghan. We don't want the thanks, it's just to know that the parcels are getting through and that we're sending the right stuff. By doing what we do we hope we're raising morale; when we get a letter back, it raises our morale too.

So there you have it, just a few of us doing our bit to let the guys know that the work they do for us is appreciated and that people back home are thinking of them and supporting them.

Oh, and I'll try to write some more on my blog.