The Gorge Heroes Club started in 2007, with the humble desire of a mother to continue taking care of her son and his friends. Under the name Mom's Club, it began as simply a few coworkers getting together once a month to assemble care packages for a platoon of Marines stationed in Iraq.
Today, with the help of a much larger force of volunteers, the Heroes Club is in touch with thousands of soldiers serving overseas. This summer the nonprofit gathered, packed and sent letters, cards and care packages to about 700 individuals stationed in combat zones across the Middle East.
"Mail is huge for morale," said GHC founder RaeLynn Ricarte, whose son, Jesse, is still serving overseas with the U.S. Marines. "The holidays are probably the hardest time to be away from home and family; and many of our troops are living in difficult conditions, literally living in the dirt. Getting something in the mail from back home really means a lot to them."
In just a few quick years, GHC has gone from a pet project to a venerable force on the homefront. The club has been featured on television and radio programs, has created community outreach programs and has garnered national attention for the level of dedication it gives to America's soldiers overseas.
"It started with about 40 Marines, including my son," Ricarte said. "When I first got started, I had no idea that some lieutenant in Afghanistan would end up calling me 'Mom.' The troops are out there risking their lives for us on a daily basis; this is the least we can do for them."
The first packages were filled with trivial items like deodorant, beef jerky, candy and random magazines people donated. And although more serious items like water purifiers, cook stoves, and simple but essential personal hygiene items have been added to wish lists, the soldiers still enjoy the little things.
"I tell people, when they're thinking about what to send or donate, to think of someone on a really bad camping trip," Ricarte said. "For the holidays we'll also send over some festive packages with little decorations in them so the soldiers can have little parties."
In addition to sending letters and packages to Gorge-area soldiers, the GHC has taken to "adopting" servicemen and women from across the country. Commanders in the field pay attention to the morale of their soldiers, and if someone is not receiving mail from home it can be a bad sign.
"It sucks to be overseas this time of year, and if you're the only one not getting something during mail call, it's a big hit on your morale," Ricarte said. "In addition to taking care of our local soldiers, the Heroes Club wants to focus on those who aren't getting anything from back home. We don't need to know them, or to know where they are from to help. It doesn't matter; if they are in a uniform and are in need of attention, we want to help."
Ricarte said in addition to sending packages to what she calls "orphaned soldiers," the GHC can also connect families or individuals to those soldiers, as a sort of pen-pal arrangement. Soldiers often write back, she said, expressing their gratitude for even the smallest of care packages.
The GHC is also working on projects for soldiers here in the Gorge.
Earlier this fall, 165 National Guard soldiers returned from a year-long deployment to Iraq. Of the group (135 from The Dalles Armory and 35 from the Hood River Armory), about 45 are currently unemployed and looking for work. Of those, Ricarte said about 10 are in more serious need of help getting back on their feet.
"We're focusing on those 10 as much as we can," she said of the group. "A few of them are couch surfing or living in their cars, and we'd like to at least raise enough money to help them get into some kind of housing for the winter."
Another upcoming event will be a sendoff for Hood River native Jeremy Fogle, a Navy Corpsman who will soon be on his way with a unit of Marines to Afghanistan. Once he's situated at a base, Ricarte said GHC will send packages to his entire platoon.