Arnold man leads effort to send holiday packages overseas
Santa Claus and his elves could learn a thing or two from Sam Lombardo and the volunteers of Cookies for Our Troops.
“Everybody knows their job,” Lombardo said as the Arnold-based group prepares for its 10th Christmas season of sending care packages to American troops overseas.
“I don't need to go to them anymore — they all come to me,” Lombardo said of the many volunteers and donors. “This is year 10. It just falls into place.”
The group is mobilizing to prepare the Christmas packages — even though Lombardo isn't yet certain what groups they'll support this year.
Although about 40 New Kensington-based soldiers are in Afghanistan now with the 305th Military Police Co. from West Virginia, that unit is expected home soon.
“I'm not sure who we're going to take care of for Christmas,” Lombardo said.
He knows of at least three military groups that are overseas and have ties to local people. He is waiting for contact information to finalize gift-giving plans.
Meanwhile, he'll collect donations and gather supplies in preparation for shipping the packages around Thanksgiving, the deadline he sets to ensure the presents get to the Middle East in time for Christmas.
Lombardo typically spends upward of $25,000 worth of Christmas packages, which have included full-sized Christmas trees and decorations, stockings and gifts that range from toiletries and snacks to useful tools and entertainment items. In the past, local school children, scout groups and service organizations have included personalized cards, handwritten notes, homemade stockings and other gifts.
Lombardo has gone big over the years, sending entertainment systems, pizza ovens, funnel-cake fryers and other novelties to give the troops a taste of home.
But he said it's often the small things that seem to be most appreciated.
“Bath towels, toiletries, hair bands for the women. Who would think? That's what they go crazy over,” Lombardo said. “It's the little things they want. Hair bands, picks to clean guns, freeze pops.”
Since 2003 when Cookies for Our Troops sent the first packages to troops who had deployed from the New Kensington Army Reserve Center, Lombardo estimates nearly $400,000 in donations has been raised.
Some of that money has come in larger chunks, like the several thousand dollars collected each year by steelworkers from Allegheny Ludlum's local mills and other companies.
But much of the money has been donated in small quantities.
“Can you imagine? Most of it comes in $5, $10 at a clip,” Lombardo said. “There's a sweet woman in Leechburg who sends $5 every month.”
With the exception of the money spent on postage every fall when Lombardo sends a letter requesting donations from local businesses, all the money raised has been used for the care packages.
“I can't let a week go by without making sure boxes are on their way over there,” Lombardo said.
Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or firstname.lastname@example.org.