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From left, Emily Bourn, 6, packs boxes with treats for military service members with the rest of her Girl Scout Daisy Troop 70649-- Abbi McCombs, 6, Brittany Swift, 6, and Laura Schmidt, 6. The Desert Angel packing party took place at Belle Ann Elementary School Nov. 12. Photo by Patrick McAbee. (click for larger version)
November 14, 2012 - Brandon Twp.- Dozens of community members filled more than a hundred boxes with holiday cheer Nov. 12 in the Belle Ann Elementary gymnasium, although at first glance, it wasn't quite clear which holiday was being celebrated.

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, handmade cards with turkeys drawn on the front and canned food including cranberries, corn, and even turkey were being tucked into the priority mail shipping boxes.

But Christmas was apparent, too— stockings were stuffed with small Christmas trees, lights, ornaments and other assorted decorations to also be put in the boxes.

And finally, it could even have been Independence Day as American flags adorned the room and everyone in attendance recited the Pledge of Allegiance, then sang "The Star-Spangled Banner."

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The occasion, as it turned out, was to thank U.S. military members serving overseas this holiday season by sending them a taste of home. Due to the efforts of "Desert Angel" Louise Downs, Girl Scouts, local students, parents, and other grateful residents, the boxes were filled in about 90 minutes. They are in the mail already, too, thanks to a $2,000 donation to cover postage from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans.

"This really warms my heart," said Kathy Kwiatkowski, president of Keepsake Patrollers, a philanthropic organization that donated Christmas trees, socks, toiletries, coffee and more for the troops. "It gives you a good feeling to know you're helping someone else. This is what Christmas is about. Whatever you give, you get back ten-fold."

Louise Downs founded the Desert Angel organization following the 9/11 tragedy in 2001. Since then, she and supporters have filled thousands of boxes with items for troops serving overseas. The packages are now known as "Miracle Boxes," named in honor of PFC Joseph Miracle, a Brandon High School graduate killed in battle in Afghanistan on July 5, 2007.

Desert Angels hold packing parties every month, at various locations. The non-profit organization relies solely on donations, both of items and money for mailing costs. In the boxes filled on Monday were 60-minute phone cards donated by General Motors. Besides the various items for troops, their military K-9 partners were also remembered, with dog treats included.

Jeff James, the Desert Angel photographer, served in South Korea in the Army as a military policeman and dog handler from 1970-1972. He received dozens of cards, but never anything like the care packages the Desert Angels send to the troops.

"This is a wonderful thing," said James. "I imagine (the troops) opening the boxes and seeing the pics of the smiling kids who have packed these boxes and the smile it will bring to them. These boxes are a touch of home. When you're thousands of miles away, it means a lot."

Mackenzie Nichols, 11, of Ortonville, held a box that was literally bursting at the seams after she had stuffed it with "a lot of socks, food, and toothpaste."

"It's really full of stuff for a soldier that doesn't have what he needs," she said. "This will help him or her help our country. I feel good that I'm helping a troop."

The next Desert Angel packing party, sponsored by Studio 93 in Hadley, is set for 6 p.m., Dec. 8, at Goodrich United Methodist Church, 8071 S. State Road. For more information on how you can help, visit www.thedesertangel.org.

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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