The Strength Behind The Strong

The Strength Behind The Strong

It was 1967, and Betty Hofmann, newly wed and newly pregnant with her daughter, found herself assembling care packages to send to her husband, James, during his yearlong deployment to Vietnam. Betty sent letters every day, an occasional jar of peanut butter to help make MREs (prepackaged military meals) more palatable, and, just once, chocolate. "I thought it would be nice to make him some fudge," she says. "I carefully wrapped up individual pieces in aluminum foil, and I thought it would ship really well.

"Except it was the middle of summer, and it was probably 120 degrees in Vietnam. And the mail was much slower then. I think everything went by boat. It probably took a month to get there," she laughs. "When he opened the box, it was just this mess of melted chocolate ooze and foil."

So maybe it was predestined that her daughter, Christine Hofmann-Bourque, would grow up to help other people wanting to send lovely little somethings to their homesick loved ones overseas.

To that end, Christine founded thestrengthbehindthestrong.com, a website dedicated to all manner of "imaginative and practical ideas for staying connected with and supporting our troops," says Christine. "It's for everyone who's ever mailed a care package, thrown a welcome-home-from deployment party, or thanked a soldier in an airport for his or her service."

Family Roots

The site is exceptionally useful for those who want to send the sweet, caloric sort of support. The Dear Abby of military care packages, Christine passes along hard-earned and savvy how-to's. With three brothers, a sister-in-law and a cousin on active duty, Christine says, there have always been many care packages in her life. But it wasn't until her husband, a social worker, decided to join the Army after 9/11 that she really fine-tuned her baking, packing and shipping skills.

Even after he returned home, she found it difficult to stop sending treats. "Once you understand how much it means to the soldiers, you start to package up more for others who may not have been receiving them," Christine explains. "There's still something very special about getting a letter or a package in the mail, as opposed to just getting an email on the computer. They know that someone took the time and effort to think about and wrap up and haul something to the post office. Which, of course, is the point: to show that you care. And they're thinking, Wow, someone took the time to send me something."

Packing 101

Can't decide what to send? The best thing you can do is simply ask people what they'd like. Then use this guide to send care packages that loved ones want.

Strength Behind The Strong

Free Boxes: The U.S. Postal Service provides free military kits that include boxes, tape, address labels and customs forms. Call 800-610-8734. choose your language of choice, then select the first option and request the military care Kit. Allow 7-10 days for delivery. or pick up a box or two directly from the post office.

Ounces Count: It's tempting to pack a bazillion things in a box, but it gets heavy quickly. If you ask, post office employees will help. If you can fit what you're sending into a priority flat-rate box, that's usually the best option.

Airtight: Pack cookies or brownies among large resealable plastic bags, which will keep out air and dust much better than wrapping them individually in plastic wrap. Squeeze as much air out of the bag as possible. (If you have a vacuum sealer, use it.) Include several small resealable bags so recipients can slip a sweet in a uniform pocket or share with some buddies.

Strength Behind The Strong

Best for shipping: The most stable treats to send year-round include drop cookies, brownies, chex mix and purchased, shelf-stable baked goods. It's cool enough even in the desert for chocolate chip cookies to survive without melting.

Bit of Joy: Tuck an inexpensive plastic holiday serving dish or two in the box. At just $3 or $4 each, they add a festive touch to often grim surroundings.

Double-Duty Packing: For added cushioning, use newspapers, magazines or comic books that loved ones can read. or rely on socks, boxers, towels or other practical items they can use. or fill the nooks and crannies with individually wrapped hard candies, packets of gum, licorice, lollipops or energy bars.

Avoid aromatherapy: Don't slip nonfood items laced with fragrance into a food package. No one wants to bite into a cookie that tastes like soap.

Icing to go: Fancy frosted cookies don't travel well, but go ahead and tuck in a container of store-bought frosting and cookie decorations so your loved ones can ice the sweets themselves.