Mary Ettel is a big shopper. Not only does she and her daughter, Erin, browse new handbags at Brighton Collectibles in the Perimeter Mall every season, but she does 95 percent of the shopping for Project Mail Call, a charity she runs with her husband, Ed, a retired IBM executive and former Navy man.
The organization, which has sent 3,800 care packages weighing a total of 61,000 pounds to troops overseas in the past seven years, started as a Sunday school project at Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta, GA. When the Ettels took over the mission, the church was sending a box every other month. Now they can have 10 packing sessions a month.
Unlike other organizations that send care packages to troops, the Ettels make the experience completely personal and custom for both the troops and the volunteers who pack. Often the process begins with a letter from a soldier, requesting items that are surprisingly not available to them. These include toiletries, batteries, cold medications and vitamins. It brought tears to Mary’s eyes when one soldier wrote, “We really want food,” and another ended his letter by saying, “I’m sorry to ask for so much.”
Coggin and his wife have an adorable son.
The Ettels also make the packing sessions a unique, meaningful experience for the volunteers. The day begins with Ed putting an American flag out over their driveway, signaling that a packing session is in progress. Mary cooks breakfast for the volunteers. That ritual began six years ago, when she wanted to provide an incentive for a Sunday school class to participate. Now people look forward to the breakfast almost as much as to the packing. The sessions are limited to 30 volunteers, the maximum number of people who can fit into the Ettels’ basement. That space, which was previously Ed’s work room and a storage area, is now lined with shelves full of supplies. Every volunteer writes a letter to the intended recipient to include in the box, along with a group picture of the session. Mary hears from many soldiers that those letters, especially from children, are the best part of receiving a box. Some of these troops don’t receive any other mail from home.
Project Mail Call has one open session a month and private sessions that, due to their popularity, need to be reserved weeks in advance. Churches, schools, civic groups and companies use the packing sessions as team-building exercises or community service projects. Possibly the most surprising group to volunteer came from a mosque in Marietta. Since some soldiers are involved in humanitarian aid for local orphanages, schools and clinics, they ask for items such as blankets, school supplies or children’s toys. Mary approached the mosque about working together, since most of that humanitarian aid goes to help Muslims. The mosque sent 13 Muslim women of all ages to a packing session that turned out to be a community-building experience for all involved.
Over the years, the Project Mail Call community has included the Ettels’ friends and neighbors. Early on, Ed would search people’s recycling bins for Sunday comics (a favorite request from the troops). Eventually, his neighbors caught on, and now they regularly put their comics in his mailbox. Some neighbors help Ed load the boxes into his car and ship them out at the post office. Ed often apologizes to those standing behind him in the post office for holding up the line with so many packages. Once they hear about Project Mail Call, some of those same inconvenienced people later go to participate in a packing session.