Helga Schoennagel has been making 1,000 holiday stockings for military members every year for the last ten years! DJ Johnson-Hubbard has been helping her for the last seven.
“We were at a volunteer meeting and Helga was talking about stockings for troops,” explains DJ. “When she said she sewed 1,000 stockings I told her I sewed too.” That’s how DJ was recruited.
Since then, the dynamic duo has been leading the efforts in Florida’s Southern Gulf Chapter for the Red Cross’ Holiday for Heroes, an annual campaign which provides the community an opportunity to send messages of thanks and holiday cheer to veterans and military members. These cards along with donated items that are greatly needed are all packaged together in these handmade stockings and delivered to military members who are away from their families during the holidays.
Both women live in Naples, Fla., and although they do not have a military background themselves, they each have family members who have served and that is what inspires them to give back in any way they can.
When we are sewing the stockings and stuffing them, we know who they’re going to and that when they get it, that may be the only thing they get during the holidays,” says DJ. “They are giving their lives, sacrificing for us.
Helga and DJ are both retired so can devote a lot of their time to volunteering for the Red Cross. They also do presentations for The Pillowcase Project, are on the disaster action team responding to home fires, and go into the community to teach about home fire preparedness. But when summer rolls around, stockings become the priority – not only sewing them, but getting the funds and buying the fabric. Last year especially, when many resources were being utilized for the historic hurricane season response, they had to do everything themselves.
They credit Heidi O’Sheehan, the new Director of Service to the Armed Forces in South Florida, with really “cleaning up” the campaign and advising them on items that soldiers would truly need. “Thank God for Heidi,” says DJ. “She went above and beyond. She not only got us the money we needed, she went out and bought the fabric herself!”
Although DJ is the more talkative of the two, she says Helga keeps everyone organized and makes sure every stocking is perfect. And Helga echoes what DJ says:
“Holiday for Heroes gives the community the opportunity to express their support and love and how much they care about soldiers and veterans. There are a lot of veterans in South Florida; many of them are homeless or they may be last person alive in their families; there are lots of seniors with no one to care for them. This campaign makes our community aware of them and then they do things for them when they see them. It inspires random acts of kindness and that’s what we want to see.”
DJ and Helga are always trying to recruit more volunteers to help with the sewing, but even those who have never touched a sewing machine can participate. From now until October 23, you can drop off your donated items and homemade holiday cards at collection boxes throughout the community. Examples of donated items include toiletries, snacks & sweets, and playing cards.
Visit redcross.org/holidayforheroes for a list of items we are collecting as well as an up-to-date list of collection box locations.
A lot of people want to help but say they can’t sew,” says DJ. “But they can buy fabric; they can make cards; they can donate items.
In other words, we can all give back.
Written by Estefania Garcia.