CARY – Ten-year-old Beth Douglass and 6-year-old Alexandra Stephens are in the business of putting smiles on the faces of people thousands of miles away.
They do it from a kitchen table in Cary.
The girls are writing letters and drawing pictures that they send overseas and around the country to war veterans, active-duty military personnel and wounded soldiers.
They call it Operation Letters of Love, which they started June 22 with the help of Sandra Heffner, who is Alexandra’s mother and Beth’s older sister.
Since they began writing the letters, they have been surprised by the support and positive feedback they have received.
“It’s been awesome,” Heffner said. “We’ve gotten really cool stories, and people have come out of the woodwork and have said it’s amazing. Complete strangers have said thank you.”
Like most children on summer break, the girls enjoy playing with friends and watching television, but they will be the first to say that they don’t mind taking time to make someone feel good.
Beth has a full summer schedule of horseback riding, swimming, helping out in the garden and learning how to play the bagpipes. Alexandra likes to play outside and with her American Girl doll.
The letters and drawing, though, “It makes us feel special,” Beth said. “The soldiers deserve to be happy.”
“We’re just trying to help people and make them smile,” Alexandra said.
The inspiration to devote time out of each day to compose the letters comes from the memory of Sandra Heffner’s friend, Jason McLeod.
McLeod died while serving in Afghanistan on Nov. 23, 2009, shortly after insurgents attacked his unit with mortar fire just three weeks before he was scheduled for leave.
The family wanted to support McLeod’s family and others who have served and decided that writing heartfelt letters was the perfect place to start.
“We wanted to instill that giving back is important,” Heffner said. “My mom instilled that in the both of us, and I wanted to continue and teach my own daughter.”
The girls have written and sent more than 30 letters in just over two weeks, and hope to keep up the writing and send more letters as they receive more addresses.
Each girl has a unique trademark. Alexandra always traces her hand and turns it into an American flag using the crayons, and Beth draws many red, white and blue stars across the page and adds stickers amid the writing.
Heffner places a picture of the girls in the envelope along with a description of their program to accompany the letters.
“We are hoping to set up a P.O. box for the kids so the soldiers have the option to write back,” Heffner said.
They currently are using a personal address, and a P.O. box will allow them to send letters back and forth without making the address public. They don’t have the funds for the box yet but are hoping to with some help — Heffner worked at the Alexander Lee Center for Autism in Crystal Lake before losing her job.
So far, the girls have received donations of American-themed stationery, crayons and stickers, which they used to send out the first batch of letters.
The girls also have set up a Facebook page to help compile and receive addresses. It is there that they receive the encouraging messages from soldiers who have been touched by the letters.
The girls sent a letter to J.R. Martinez, a soldier who was wounded in Iraq and eventually became an actor on the soap “All My Children,” a motivational speaker and a “Dancing With the Stars” winner.
They heard back from him through Facebook – encouraging words and praise for the girls, which made them feel important.
“It really feels great to be able to give back,” Heffner said. “And the kids get a lot out of it, too.”