WINCHESTER — The American Red Cross is committed to supporting the men and women who serve in the United States military, and that commitment doesn't end when enlistments expire.

On Tuesday afternoon, a group of seven Red Cross employees and volunteers gathered in the nonprofit's Winchester offices at 561 Fortress Drive to fill 200 gift bags with donated toiletries, puzzle books, letters, greeting cards and more. The bags will be delivered on Friday to former military members staying in the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Martinsburg, West Virginia, which is the healthcare facility used by many Winchester-area veterans.

"We've been overwhelmed with the generosity," a beaming Leslie Caliva, community volunteer leader for the Greater Shenandoah Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross, said on Tuesday afternoon as she looked at about a dozen tables covered with donated items. "It's amazing, it really is."

Full-size toiletries and the plastic bags that contained them were donated by the Procter & Gamble manufacturing facility near Inwood, West Virginia, and additional grooming products were given by Valley Health of Winchester.

Puzzle books, playing cards and greeting cards were prepared for the veterans by students at Sherando High School near Stephens City, and children at Redbud Run Elementary School in Frederick County worked with neighboring students at Millbrook High School to create hundreds more cards and letters.

One of the cards from a child at Redbud Run perfectly summed up the experience of most military veterans: "You left your family and didn't know if you would make it out [of combat] or not. In my book, that's pretty darn brave. Thank you for everything!"

The Baldwin family of Front Royal and Hagerstown, Maryland, prepared 1,200 additional greeting cards for local veterans, and First United Methodist Church of Winchester decorated 350 paper bags to hold even more cards and letters that were written by area children and collected by Gore's Meats of Stephens City.

Caliva explained why the local Red Cross chapter, which is perhaps best known for collecting blood to benefit medical patients, oversaw such a massive holiday outreach: "One of the most important programs that the American Red Cross offers is services to armed forces and veterans. A lot of people don't realize that's part of our congressional mandate."

"Our troops do so much to keep us safe at home," added Stacy McFarland, executive director of the Greater Shenandoah Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross and one of the seven people who assembled gift bags on Tuesday. "This is the least we can do to brighten their stay [in the Veterans Affairs Medical Center] during the holidays."

Even after filling 200 gift bags on Tuesday, the Red Cross chapter wasn't finished preparing holiday surprises for local military veterans. Caliva said the organization has partnered with several area veterans' groups to deliver even more items in December to former service members who are now shut-ins or residing in area nursing homes.

"We're trying to grow this program larger than it's ever been before," she said. "It's our way of saying, 'Thank you, vets, and happy holidays.'"

— Contact Brian Brehm at bbrehm@winchesterstar.com

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