At a remote outpost, a military chaplain reads from an ELCA prayer book.

Outside a Turkish orphanage, a boy plays with a new soccer ball.

In a Wisconsin veterans center, a family finds homemade cookies and a listening ear.

All of these experiences were made possible because a dozen or more residents of Oakwood Lutheran Senior Ministries’ Prairie Ridge campus in Madison, Wis., gather on the third Friday of every month to fill and send care packages to chaplains and service members worldwide and veterans at home.

The residents have become known as the “Oakwood Packers,” and the story behind their project goes back to 2007, when an Oakwood employee felt heartbroken after her son was injured during the Iraq War. Resident Bev Harper told her, “Please give me a call if there’s anything I can do for you.”

Soon, that call came; Oakwood could meet a need through care packages.

With prayer and $200 each, Harper and fellow residents Opal Boehm, Phyllis Gerlach and Pearl Nabis began the Oakwood Packers ministry. They sent the first care package in May 2007.

“Those [letters] were always appreciated—knowing that people took time out of their busy lives to do something with a personal touch.”

Oakwood employees and their family members supplied the names of people serving overseas to receive the packages. By 2015 the Oakwood Packers had sent 1,000 care packages to ELCA chaplains and service members—and their packing group had grown.

Like a military unit, the group developed order and camaraderie. Residents Sharon Hamilton and Kathy Rasmussen track the number of packages. Rasmussen updates residents through the Oaktree newsletter.

Packing sessions are “a good time,” Hamilton said. “We have a schedule and everyone has a task assigned.” Some arrange items; others tape boxes.

Care packages are designed to support physical, social and spiritual needs. There are trail bars and toothpaste, and a hand-knit cap to keep out the cold and dust. The caps, which get used under troops’ helmets, have become a mission for Oakwood knitters, Hamilton said.

Each package also has a letter from a Packer, who tells them about their group. Troops often respond with their own letters. Harper said those responses mean a lot to the Oakwood Packers, adding that it makes their ministry “a real mission for us—not just a monthly job.”

Lt. Cmdr. Todd Iverson, an ELCA chaplain, and his troops received packages during an overseas deployment. “Those [letters] were always appreciated—knowing that people took time out of their busy lives to do something with a personal touch,” he said. “Support for our military is always important and appreciated. Having that extra measure of support from folks back home felt really good to us.”

Eric Wester, ELCA director for federal chaplaincies, has helped supply the Oakwood Packers with names of ELCA chaplains who could use the packages. He also told them about the Evangelical Lutheran Worship “Prayer Book for the Armed Services,” which is now included in every care package.

“The book contains a treasure of intercessory prayers unlike anything you will find in typical prayer books—prayers that go right to the heart of the challenges and satisfactions of military life,” Wester said.

Iverson echoed Wester’s sentiments: “When we were in remote locations, that was the only thing available and we used it all the time.”

Ron Mach, an Oakwood Packer and retired ELCA pastor, said adding the prayer book to the care packages gave “a new spiritual direction to what we had been doing.”

Harper agreed: “We’re doing something that’s meaningful not just to the troops but to the church.”

One time a chaplain made a request that led to a memorable care package. Serving near the Syrian border, the chaplain knew that children living at a nearby orphanage run by Turkish nuns could use toys and snacks. In response, the Oakwood Packers sent a package that included jump ropes and soccer balls.

The Oakwood Packers have also started serving those in their community through baking and delivering cookies and other homemade treats to veterans and their families receiving care at the Madison Vet Center, Mach said.

Being united in the mission of their ministry has created a strong sense of community among the group. “It’s such a privilege to join in a kind and sharing endeavor,” Rasmussen said. “As a relatively new resident of Oakwood, it’s been a way to connect with other residents.”

Hamilton said, “We older people like to feel that we’re useful.”

The Oakwood Packers have received five awards for their work and, at press time, have sent 1,474 care packages. They’re not slowing down: local businesses and organizations are joining their mission, and Oakwood’s chapel donates its offerings one month every year toward the care packages.

“It’s God’s Spirit that led us on all the branches of this mission,” Mach said. “We’re counting on spiritual direction into the future.”

Rachel K. Hindery
Rachel K. Hindery is a freelance reporter and a member of Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, Ill.

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