COLUMBUS - Diane O'Neil picked a warm, sunny day to "set up shop" outside the IGA in Columbus. In a few hours, the Columbus-area resident had collected enough holiday wishes and signatures to fill five large sheets of paper.
The greetings from passers-by will go to troops overseas as part of the Reagan Round Up, a national program that organizes pen pals and support for soldiers stationed out of the country.
O'Neil, Montana's leader for the Reagan Round Up, is in a last-minute push to make the holidays a bit more cheerful for the more than 2,000 service members who have signed on.
"We recently received an e-mail from a unit of 27 men, all asking for pen pals and care packages," O'Neil said. "So I'm fired up trying to get more members and donations quickly."
Dawn Gilsdorf, the San Diego Navy mom who launched the Reagan Round Up, has stuffed 50 flat-rate boxes with donations but lacks the funds to mail them all, O'Neil said. Members are also trying to fill 100 stockings for the wounded at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego.
Although there are only a few days left to send off holiday packages - to guarantee arrival, they must be in the mail by Dec. 6 - the need for support reaches far beyond the holidays, she said.
The Round Up continues to seek new members to make cot-sized blankets for soldiers and smaller blankets for the wounded in wheelchairs. O'Neil has gathered material and batting for a quilt, but lacking skills as a seamstress, she's looking for someone willing to put it together.
Members are also collecting baby items - such as blankets, booties, baby shampoo and lotions - to go in baskets for the newborn babies of deployed soldiers.
"And, of course, we're always looking for more pen pals, too," O'Neil said.
The Reagan Round Up was created in January 2006 by Gilsdorf, who came up with the idea when her son was set to deploy on the maiden voyage of the USS Reagan. It has grown to hundreds of members supporting more than 2,000 deployed troops.