Operation Shoebox survives founder's death
STATE COLLEGE — Dino Campanis, a Vietnam War veteran, knew the joy a care package could give a combat soldier.
Remembering that, the Bellefonte shoe store owner in 2004 started Operation Shoebox: boxes of food, candy and useful items sent to troops posted in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and South Korea. For eight years, the packages brought welcome pieces of home to men and women far from their families.
After Campanis died in March, another local good Samaritan kept his legacy alive.
Paula Parker, of Patton Township, directs the program now called Dino's Operation Shoebox, continuing to collect donations and assemble packages with the support of the Campanis family.
She's a co-founder of Military Families Ministry, a nonprofit organization that helps military personnel, their spouses and families and veterans. The other founder, Tracie Ciambotti, runs a MFM branch in Colorado.
Working out of her Toftrees home, Parker primarily sends boxes to troops she helps through her ministry.
“We are honored that Paula has taken over this project in my brother's name,” said Vicki Mislinski, of Pleasant Gap. “And we're blessed to have her now in our life. Dino would be overwhelmed knowing that it's continuing in his name, and he would also be honored because this was such a passion of his that he loved.”
Whatever troops need Parker does her best to supply. When one unit ran low on shaving cream, and nothing could be found on her basement shelves, she went out and raided a local big-box store. Dozens of Hershey bars survived intact in an insulated bag sent to a chocolate-starved soldier.
Another time, the wife of an Air Force serviceman told Parker that he often visited a children's ward in an Afghan hospital. Parker then stuffed boxes with coloring books and Matchbox cars.
“So when he went to visit those kids, he had something to give them,” Parker said.
From her own daughter, a Marine who served in Iraq in 2008, Parker learned that mundane items here take on special qualities in war zones.
During her tour, Sara Parker traded Pez candy dispensers stashed in a care package from home as a lark for a helicopter ride.
“You just never know what this stuff will do,” Paula Parker said.
Three years ago, her experience as a military mother inspired her ministry. That in turn spurred a partnership.
Campanis approached her last year about collaborating. With his health declining, he needed help with the packing, she said. He also was looking for names of deployed troops.
Parker could provide both.
She had been assisting Campanis for about six months when he died at age 62. Given her dedication to troops, it was only natural she carried on his effort.
“I know they need stuff, and I can't sit here doing nothing knowing they need it,” she said. “If little Hershey candy bars make a difference in a kid's life, then I'll send it.”
Since she took over, she estimates, the program has sent more than 4,000 boxes. Community donations and financial assistance from the Campanis family help pay for shipping.
Her husband, Rick, also lends a hand. A Bryce Jordan Center employee, he's proud of his daughter, his hero. He drove through the night, 10 coffee-fueled hours straight, to attend her basic training graduation on Parris Island in South Carolina.
Helping other military families is no sweat. By now, he's used to a basement full of goods and calls from distant time zones.
“I come home (from work) and the phone is going on at 3 a.m.: ding, ding, ding,” he said.
It can get exhausting. Then Paula Parker goes into her home office and looks at the wall of thank you certificates sent to her and Campanis from grateful units.
Her dream, she said, is to expand to a warehouse.
“If I were to think really big, I'd love to someday deliver a box to a deployed military member, give him or her a hug and thank them in person for everything they sacrifice for me,” she said. “Now that would be a dream. Could you even imagine how cool that would be?”