NEWINGTON - More than a dozen people crowded into a corner of Starbucks on Main Street Monday night to package up treats, personal care products, playing cards and letters for a local serviceman and his unit, currently deployed in Afghanistan.
Newington native Benjamin Arace, lead combat medic for the 1-504th Parachute Infantry Regiment - 82nd Airborne Division, can soon expect a shipment of boxes from his family and friends.
“It’s not just for him; it’s for his entire unit,” his mother, Gwyn Arace, explained. “They’re kind of in the thick of things right now. While we’re sitting here eating a turkey dinner this Thanksgiving they’re adding water to a pack to make a meal. It means a lot to know someone is thinking about them.”
Ben’s aunt and uncle, Russell and Cathy Dionne, and his cousins Matthew and Samuel were happy to help.
“We do stay in touch but we haven’t seen him for awhile,” Russell said.
The family included Ben in their Fantasy Football League this fall and the boys, ages 16 and 17, sometimes play video games over the internet with their 24-year-old cousin.
Starbucks store manager Tessa Pilkerton was looking for a military unit to sponsor this holiday season, since the company makes it part of its mission to give back to servicemen and veterans. She partnered with the Arace family and friends for Monday’s “packing party.” The store hosted the event and paid for the shipping costs.
Cub Scout Pack 347 also took part, adding in letters they wrote. Each envelope was entitled, “To any soldier.”
“It’s not only the little goodies we’re sending, it’s the notes,” Gwyn pointed out. “Just to have that to read when they’re down and out may sound like the smallest thing but it really means quite a bit to these folks, especially if they’re lonesome.”
Nine-year-old Jack Garofolo drew a picture inside his letter.
“I told them, “Thank you for keeping our country safe,” he said. “I hope you come back to your family safe and sound.”
Seven-year-old Sean Cashman also had a thank-you for the soldier who will go on to read his letter.
“Thank you for all you do in the military,” he wrote. “I hope you stay safe in the other countries.”
Ben’s neighbor Michelle Harter stopped by the coffee shop to help, but was met by a full table of busy workers.
“I’m glad they had a great turnout,” she said.
Gwyn was also glad for the outpouring of support. When she’s missing her son, she often goes to friend Michele Zappala, whose son recently returned from Iraq.
“The boys went to school together,” Zappala explained.
“When I found out Gwyn’s son was deployed I just reached out and offered support. It’s good to have someone to talk to and be rest-assured. I told her, ‘No matter what, we’re always looking at the same moon as them so we’re together.’”
Her son Joshua Barnett would often share the snacks and gifts he received overseas with his unit, she pointed out.
“Some of these guys who live in other parts of the country, their families don’t have the money to send them things,” Zappala added. “They really appreciate it.”
Erica Schmitt can be reached at 860-801-5097, or firstname.lastname@example.org.