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This year has been a bit of an emotional roller coaster for my family. In January, within a week of each other, my youngest and oldest child each departed for different areas of Mexico to serve on mission teams, leaving my husband and I home with our son who was scheduled to deploy to the Middle East as an Airman in the United States Air Guard. I knew it was going to be a bit of an adjustment, but I had no idea what it would actually feel like to say goodbye to your children, knowing you’d have limited communication with them- if any- for several months.
My oldest child was young when I discovered he had a heart for sharing his faith. A lover of people, his good natured personality helps him to see the best in people. He has genuine compassion and empathy. During the years that we homeschooled, he had several opportunities to serve our community and those in surrounding states, which fueled his desire to travel internationally with various ministry organizations. I wasn’t surprised when he jumped at a last minute opportunity to serve the homeless and build homes in Mexico for those in need. That journey led him to Mexico City and even to Panama, where he’ll be for the next few weeks, with no contact with us.
My 20- year old was four-years old when he told me he wanted to be a soldier and his resolve never wavered. A true leader, he has grown into a young man of integrity. I never doubted that I was destined to become a military mom. I encouraged him, and envied him and his ability to know this was what he was going to do with his life. But nothing prepares a mom for boot camp, or BMT (basic military training). I don’t think I’ve ever written so many letters in my life. And I can’t even explain how it feels to see your child in uniform during the graduation and finally give them a hug after week’s spent apart. And then, you’re faced with deployment and that’s a whole new experience.
My daughter’s passion to serve was ignited during a community event when she was 16. And though she swore she didn’t like kids, I saw a different side of her when she worked tirelessly with school children in Honduras. She was passionate, collected and she resolved to make a difference in the world. When she told me she had an opportunity to work in a preschool on a missionary base on the edge of Tijuana, I knew my husband and I needed to encourage her to follow her heart. And we did, though we worried about her every day until she was home two months later.
I admit, when my four-year old told me he wanted to be a soldier, and that he didn’t think he’d always be home for Christmas once he grew up, I had to choke back tears. And last fall, when he told me that he was actually going to deploy, it scared me to death. And when my oldest son told me he’d be driving ten hours across some of the scariest places in Mexico, I was fearful. And when I found out my daughter was living in Tijuana, one of the few places I’ve been and NEVER, ever want to return to, I fought the urge to buy a plane ticket and go live with her for a few months. But I’ve spent years teaching my children, instilling values that I believe are important and encouraging them to follow their dreams- even when their dreams don’t align with mine. I have missed them terribly and though it is difficult to watch them board a plane and fly away to other countries, I find comfort in knowing they are living the life they were born to live.
Thankfully, I’ve been able to have quite a bit of contact with my kids. What did parents do before the internet and social media?
Staying Connected while you’re Apart
Put social media to use.
One way we stay connected is through Facebook. I truly never imagined I could be so appreciative of a social media platform, but I really don’t know what I would do without it, especially since their phones don’t work overseas. When the kids have Wi-Fi available, they can send me messages via Facebook Messenger. We can also call each other through Facebook and make video calls. When Facebook doesn’t work, we can Skype.
In the dawn of email and text messaging, letter writing is becoming a lost art. But when you’re separated by oceans, and you’re loved one is missing home, taking the time to write and hand-written message, even if it’s a simple “I thought of you when I did ___________ today” can mean a lot. Communicate via social media, but don’t forget to add some personal touches every now and then. It’s fine to tell your loved one you miss them, just don’t get stuck there. Share things that are going on at home, talk about your job, or loved ones. When my son was in BMT two years ago, we were raising chickens. We sent weekly updates with photos. It started as a joke, but it also gave us something to focus on rather than how much we missed him.
Send Care Packages.
This is probably something my kids look forward to more than anything. A gift from home, carefully packaged with some of their favorite things. When it comes to packing a care package, the sky is the limit (as long as you observe the guidelines of the organization and USPS). The first thing you need to do is go shopping to gather the items you need for your care package. Here are some ideas of things to include:
What to Put in your Care Packages
This really depends on where your child/loved one is. Stick with something generic like a Visa or MasterCard so they can be used for a variety of uses- to make phone calls, purchase items online, at fast food restaurants, to buy much needed supplies or toiletries, etc. iTunes gift cards are great so they can download music to listen to and my son appreciates Amazon gift cards too which he can use to buy items he needs (Amazon ships worldwide) and he can use the gift certificate to watch movies that have recently been released online.
While some brands may be available overseas, it doesn’t mean that they will taste the same as what you’re used to. I send my son his favorite cookies and my daughter her favorite chocolates (though I can’t dare send chocolate to my son in the middle east). I send granola bars, beef jerky, nuts, ravioli, canned soups, packets to flavor bottled water, sunflower seeds, instant oatmeal, Ramon noodles, fruit cups, Goldfish crackers, microwave popcorn, licorice, chips and salsa (make sure the glass jar is especially padded), and peanut butter.
My kids constantly chew gum when they’re home so I was excited to find the new Extra® 35-stick pack in the checkout aisle of my local Kroger. With more sticks of gum in each pack, the kids will have plenty of gum to share with all their roommates. There was a sale when I was shopping so I bought plenty of gum to go around in both the Extra® Gum Spearmint and Extra® Gum Polar Ice® flavors. I’m torn on which one I like best. Since I kind of stockpiled the gum, I even kept a few sticks to toss in my purse- and the handy durable and recycled packaging that the gum comes in can be conveniently used to store cotton swabs or business cards when I’m traveling. I’m sure I’ll find other uses for them as well.
Pocket Games, Cards, Frisbee or Football.
I always make it a point to travel with a deck of cards. They’ve come in handy more times than I can count and they’re also a great way to pass time when you don’t have TV or Wi-Fi. I make sure my kids each have a deck of cards too. A Frisbee or football allows them some time to relax on their downtime.
Adult Coloring books and colored pencils.
The adult coloring book craze has hit may family hard. My daughter packed one for the airport and long plane ride across country, and it was such a hit with her roommates that she needed another one.
Books and devotionals.
New Earbuds and chargers.
Hand and Foot Warmers.
I was surprised to learn that the temperature fluctuates quite a bit in Mexico during the winter months as well, and the building my son stayed in did not have central heat. Hand and Foot warmers are a must, and you could consider sending a small blanket, warm socks, or additional sweatshirts as well.
A Netflix subscription.
Even though all my kids are serving overseas, they experience a fair amount of downtime. We upgraded our family membership of Netflix so it could be viewed on three devices simultaneously.
Send photos from home.
Even if you are able to communicate via Skype or Facebook Messenger, it’s still nice to have a photo of someone you love. I prefer to send printed photos, but if you have a lot of pictures, you could add them to a USB drive.
Shampoo, conditioner, soap, Over-the-counter medications, facial tissues, sunscreen, razors, lip balm, deodorant, unscented baby wipes, talcum powder, toothpaste, and hand sanitizer are only a handful of ideas of items that can be mailed to your loved one. I pack anything that may leak in a plastic baggie just in case.
Stamps and stationary.
Just like your loved ones like to receive news from home, those of us back in the states like to hear from them too. Make it easy on them to correspond by packing stamps, stationary or good ole paper and envelopes.
Gag gifts or items to make them laugh.
We have a specialty store that I can visit to pick up items that are a bit unusual. For my son’s birthday, I sent a stuffed fox that danced and sang, “What does the Fox Say?” over and over again. My son told me that it was a hit with his unit.
You can also create “themed” care packages- focused around a certain holiday like the Fourth of July or “color” packages where everything in the box is blue, or green or yellow. Just remember, whatever you send your loved one, will need to come home with them. The majority of items I send are consumable and I always send something that can be shared.
Here’s a printable checklist of items that you can include in your care package to make your shopping easier. Simply click on the photo to download and print.
Packing and Sending your Care Package
Once you have your items purchased, you’re ready to send your package. It really depends on where your package is heading and how much it weighs, on the best method to send it. You can ask about your options at your local post office. I prefer to send my packages in the large Flat Rate Priority Mail boxes. I normally pick up a couple each time I’m at the Post Office to have on hand and I fill them little by little. I like these because they typically provide the fastest shipping option, come with $50 free insurance and are trackable.
When packing your box, place your heavy items on the bottom of the box. I also like to add a bit of color in my boxes. An easy and inexpensive way to do that is to add tissue paper or wrap your care package items.
I also wrap any fragile or breakable items in bubble wrap and fill any empty space with tissue paper or bubble wrap as filler.
Finally, I place any photos or letters on top of the other care package items so when my loved one opens their box, those personal touches are going to be the first thing they see. After all, that’s what they really want anyway- news from home.
If you’re sending your care packages overseas, you’ll also need to fill out a Customs form, declaring what’s in the box. Like the boxes, I pick up a couple of these each time I stop at the Post Office. Make sure you have these filled out correctly before approaching the desk so you don’t hold up customers in the line behind you.
Would you like more ideas showing how to gift the new Extra® 35-stick packs of gum? Visit this website to glean lots of fun and creative ideas.
© 2016, Tonya Prater. All rights reserved.