Amy Oxford and her mother, Kathy Williams, saw no outward signs of support for deployed troops in their hometown of Harrisburg, Illinois. With her husband, Jamal, an Army reservist, scheduled to deploy with his unit based in Fairfield, Oxford realized an opportunity. Oxford and Williams have been wanting to do something in their hometown since the attacks on the United States on September 11th. They did not believe the Harrisburg area had done a great deal to pay tribute to those who were lost during the attacks, and they worked together to come up with an idea to support the current troops who were soon to deploy. In honoring them, Oxford and her mother believed they would also be honoring the men and women who were lost on our soil in 2001.
William’s husband did not deploy as scheduled, but the dynamic duo began their special project: SI Yellow Ribbon Campaign. The ladies used most of their available time making yellow bows and lapel pins. The profits from the sales of the bows and pins were to be used to send care packages to service members who were not receiving anything at mail call. On the very day President Bush announced that combat had begun in Iraq, March 19, 2003, Oxford and her mother launched an offensive of their own: the SI Yellow Ribbon Campaign. The local TV station covered the story, and the next day Harrisburg residents were waiting in line to support their troops with the purchase of ribbons and pins. The campaign’s efforts to serve Southern Illinois’ troops attracted the attention of a print news service, and suddenly the operation went national.
Requests for the women to send packages to service members multiplied, and they graciously responded to each one. But packing the multitude of boxes – they have not taken the time to count how many – is not always an easy task for them. Each woman has chronic health problems. Oxford suffers from lupus, and her mother has fibromyalgia. Both diseases occasionally force the woman to take breaks from what they call their obsession. Yet, they work each day in their headquarters, a building owned by Williams’ father, with the help of Oxford’s 3-year-old daughter, Callie. And when quitting time rolls around, the remaining work goes home with them.
A good portion of their time is spent on paperwork required because of SI’s nonprofit status. They are required by the post office and can only be done by hand. Williams said she has developed a repetitive stress injury from filing out so many forms. While an initial package might be generic, those that follow are as unique as their recipients. Included in those first packages are necessities, snacks and a questionnaire so that future packages can be customized to the recipient’s likes and needs. Also included is a note saying who requested that the package be sent. While some items regularly appear on the lists of wants and needs, one shows up most often.
Oxford and Williams are nothing if not accommodating, however. Even if the requested item is sure to be a chocolaty, melted mess by the time it reaches its destination, Oxford makes sure it gets there – double bagged and with a spoon included. Nothing about this endeavor is a given. Postage can total $700 in one trip to the post office, Oxford said, and postage donations have slowed. Obstacles continue to pop up, like the minivan that died in the dead of winter, forcing the women to drive packages to the post office with the top down even in snow. To help raise the money needed to continue their efforts, the women conduct fund-raisers through their Web site. They are offering heart-shaped magnets that read “Half my heart is in Iraq” and another for those who have someone serving in Afghanistan.
Public response has been tremendous, including a visit and donation from Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn. But it’s the response of the service members that means the most, the women said. Members of a unit from Fort Hood, Texas, have vowed to visit the women when they return home. Oxford said she looks forward to the day when SI Yellow Ribbon can hang up an “Out of Business” sign, because a lack of need might be even more rewarding. “I would love to see us put out of business,” she said. “That would be wonderful.”