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Sometimes a simple pack of Halloween candy is all it takes to put a smile on the face of a soldier thousands of miles from home.
Getting children to part with that extra Kit Kat or Reese's Peanut Butter Cup after trick-or-treating can be a lot easier when they know it will give a military veteran a taste of home.
That's why Operation Gratitude, a non-profit organization that sends care packages and letters to members of the U.S. military, is once again asking for donations of Halloween candy from now through mid-November to give our veterans a little taste of home.
"To me what this program does is really provide every child in America, no matter how old they are, a chance to say thank you and learn about the concept of service and giving, while also learning that there are people who put their lives on the line for our protection,'' Operation Gratitude founder Carolyn Blashek told TODAY.
That's a message that Heather Leonard, the principal of Alice M. Barrows Elementary School in Reading, Massachusetts, is hoping to deliver to her young students by participating in the drive to send Halloween candy to Operation Gratitude.
"The timing is working well with the Halloween collection and Veterans Day coming up on (Nov. 11) because our theme for next month is being respectful and supporting those who serve,'' Leonard told TODAY. "I think sometimes our students don't even know they have veterans in their family, so it's also a good chance for them to talk with their family about who has served and take some time to acknowledge their service."
Leonard has a cousin who served in the military and wants her students to understand the sacrifices made by our armed forces. Her own daughters, ages 4 and 6, also have helped pick out candy to send to the Operation Gratitude.
"When you're serving it's not just time away from your family, it's also living somewhere where you don't have access to things that you would normally go buy at the corner store,'' she said. "You miss those creature comforts that we have on a day-to-day basis. Something as small as a Kit Kat bar as a surprise can be a big deal."
Operation Gratitude initially partnered with dentists in 2007 to buy back candy from kids to send to military veterans, but since has grown to include schools, churches, restaurant chains and more. The organization sent more than 700,000 pounds of candy to troops overseas last year and expects that figure to increase this year.
"The whole image of these children who have gone out and done their trick or treating and saying, 'I want to give this candy to the troops' is what it's all about,'' Blashek said.
Angel Cuevas, who was an active U.S. Marine from 2005 to 2013 and is now active in the U.S. Marine Reserves, can remember getting packages of Halloween candy when he was deployed in Afghanistan in 2010 and aboard the USS Makin Island in 2012.
"Everyone absolutely loved it,'' Cuevas, who is also the vice president of operations for Operation Gratitude, told TODAY. "A lot of the soldiers were also using the candy to build relationships with the children and local citizens in their area of responsibility to help keep them safe on the battlefield. That's the impact this program can have."
This is the second year that Alice M. Barrows Elementary School has done a collection. They expect to have so much candy that they are looking for community partners to help fund the postage to ship it all to Operation Gratitude.
"We're trying to make our students think beyond our little bubble right here to see what people in the military really do for us,'' Leonard said.
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