Lauren Eliopoulos realized how much members of the armed services appreciate mail when she and her mother began writing to her younger brother at boot camp last summer.
“I was writing to my brother George every day,” said the 23-year-old Mansfield resident. “And through talking to people in an online military-support group, I realized there were Marines without family or friends to write to them. So I started writing letters to 10 to 15 of them. I got a letter back from one saying how much it meant that we took the time to write to him.”
That was all Eliopoulos needed to hear. She took it a step further and made a Facebook page to encourage others to write to service members, and with their permission, she listed names and addresses.
In no time at all, she and her mother’s personal letter-writing campaign grew into a major effort and the development of the nonprofit Hero Helpers of America.
Thanks to their efforts, deployed troops as well as recruits in boot camp will receive more than 4,000 cards and letters this Valentine’s Day.
But this is only the latest show of support for servicemen and servicewomen. Hero Helpers sent out thousands of cards and candy packages for Christmas, and now is gearing up to send 200 packages and thousands of cards and letters for St. Patrick’s Day. Eliopoulos said she is hoping for 10,000 messages to ship overseas and to boot camps.
After the initial positive response from the troops and the people writing the letters, Eliopoulos decided to start sending packages and put out a call for contributions. Money and requested items came flooding in, and now her parents’ two-car garage and their basement is stocked full of donations. Postal Service workers and her mail carrier know her by name.
“We had such a pull locally,” said Eliopoulos, who is about to begin a job as a production company office manager. “People came to me with offers to help. State Representative Jay Barrows contacted me and held an open house for Hero Helpers with local politicians and the veterans service officers. It opened so many doors for me.”
Barrows, a Mansfield Democrat, said he knew of other organizations that help wounded or returning troops, but he didn’t know of any local groups that meet the needs of those now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Having the open house for her was a way to raise the profile and get support from the other communities, working with the veteran agents in the other towns,’’ Barrows said.
“It was the first time I had seen someone in her generation, who had people her age serving, who wanted to help,” said Barrows. “I thought, ‘Wow,’ that’s pretty great.”
Two days before that open house last October, the Eliopoulos family learned that George would be deploying to Afghanistan in the spring. His unit will be the last Marine infantry unit to serve in Afghanistan, she said.
“It really hit home,” said Eliopoulos. “I look at all the boxes and think how these are packages that my brother will be receiving. He’s giving so much to our country — this is the least I can do.”
Her mother, Lynn Eliopoulos, teared up as she said her daughter is “incredible.”
‘[My brother] is giving so much to our country — this is the least I can do.’
“She’s taken on so much, and it’s a huge undertaking,” she said. “I’m very impressed at what she’s done in a short period of time. I’m very proud of her.”
Lauren Eliopoulos recruits schoolchildren and Boy and Girl Scouts to write letters and make cards. Off Broadway Shoe Warehouse donated about 1,000 packages of insoles for the care packages, and bookstores donate books. She said so many donations have come in she has not had to purchase any items, so all monetary contributions cover the cost of shipping.
In addition to the Christmas cards and candy packages, she got the idea to deliver cupcakes to shelters for homeless veterans and VA Hospitals during the holidays. With the help of friends, family, and volunteers, they baked 3,900 cupcakes and held a frosting party at Waxy O’Connor’s in Foxborough, then delivered them locally.
Through social networking, Eliopoulos said word has spread about Hero Helpers, which has a pending application for 501(c)(3) charity status. Working with Marine mothers online, they have developed branches in Indiana, South Carolina, and New York. “I’m hoping to eventually have one in every state.”
Almost every day, Eliopoulos sits in the basement where she has set up an office and reads hundreds of cards and letters. Sometimes she enlists the help of her parents, friends, and relatives.
“I’d feel so terrible if there was something mean in them, so I open every one to ensure the message is appropriate for the service members,” she said.
“I never thought her idea would grow to what it has,” said Lynn Eliopoulos. “She gets nothing in return except gratitude. She just wants to make sure veterans are not forgotten. I watched my son help open these cards made by little kids, and he had a tear in his eye.”For the St. Patrick’s Day packages, Hero Helpers is looking for snack items like beef jerky, energy shots, and power bars. To send letters, donate items, or help with shipping costs, contact email@example.com or call 508-631-4758.