An Edmond-born international organization aiding troops in the Middle East has been named a “Holiday Hero” by a major pharmaceutical manufacturer.
In June 2004, Edmond residents Ray and Karen Stark established The Hugs Project, which is dedicated to raising awareness and supporting American troops in harm’s way.
The organization’s name comes from “hugs,” so named out of Karen’s desire to see every service member receive a hug from home each summer. Hugs are neck ties that help soldiers keep a little cooler in 100-plus degree summer temperatures. Volunteers also make “kisses,” helmet coolers.
The Hugs Project has sent more than 1.9 million “hugs,” 500,000 “kisses” and more than 1,000 tons of care package items overseas to service members primarily in the Middle East. Items sent include canned food, beef jerky, hygiene items, socks, handmade Christmas ornaments and stockings and small sewing kits.
Due to The Hugs Project’s record of serving others, the makers of Tylenol named the organization one of its “Holiday Heroes,” someone who continuously goes above and beyond to show others how much they care, Jennifer Callaghan, Tylenol’s senior brand manager, said via a news release.
Callaghan said their story was chosen from thousands of submissions nationwide and was one of only 20 winners. They were awarded one of five prizes such as a spa day, chef to cook a family meal, limo for a day of shopping or a cleaning crew.
“In honor of these heroes, we created a holiday contest on Facebook to help friends and families celebrate their loved ones and show how much they appreciate what they do all year round,” Callaghan said.
Karen Stark said as the drawdown in the Middle East continues service members are still needing certain items so The Hugs Project continues to do what it can. Stark said it’s especially rewarding when a service member who received something from the organization returns and volunteers.
In a December American Forces Press Service report, Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey said in addition to service members in combat zones, about 250,000 men and women in uniform were deployed overseas during the holiday period.
Roughly 39,500 service members were in Afghanistan; formal U.S. combat operations have ended in Iraq. Other numbers include: About 28,000 Americans were in South Korea standing watch in the demilitarized zone; 39,000 were in Japan providing security; and about 43,000 were in Germany.
Many service members spent the holidays manning their duty stations.
Each week from the Oklahoma City location, The Hug organization sends 50-100 care packages.
A donation of $50 pays for one care package containing “hugs,” “kisses” and other needed items. Organization workers are all volunteers who take no salaries, allowing all donated funds to do directly toward materials, supplies, postage and care package items for overseas military personnel.
Volunteers are the heart of The Hugs Project.
Bob Ewing who cut fabric for more than 150,000 “hugs” during his five-plus years of service. Joe Carr organized the first annual Blazing Sun Run for Freedom. Rubye Royse loaned her sewing machine to get the organization going. Dorothy Croom was a 94-year-old who came every week because of her passion for service members.
Ray Stark, who was a Navy fire controlman stationed aboard the USS Independence in the Persian Gulf when a country church in the El Reno area adopted him, wanted to pass the same emotions he felt during that experience on to others.
For more information about The Hugs Project, visit thehugsproject.com.
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