Lancaster reaches out to military through letter-box campaign

LANCASTER — Carla Schorr holds the key to the “mailbox” in Lancaster’s Veterans Square.

Every week, she kneels on the sidewalk and empties the box, gathering an overflowing, colorful bundle of letters. In her arms, she holds various shades of construction paper scribbled with crayon drawings, neat cursive phrases decorated with glitter and formally typed sentences on white computer paper from people who have dropped them off at the non-Postal Service box. Tucked inside each letter are expressions of gratitude to active-duty military members.

Schorr, 47, was born and raised in Lancaster, the birthplace of Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman and a town that takes pride in patriotism. Passers-by strolling down Main Street can spot local military members’ faces displayed on “Hometown Heroes” banners hanging from streetlamps. Families and downtown workers flock to Veterans Square on a sunny day to eat lunch beside the black marble memorial and historic World War II cannon.

But Schorr wanted to do something to make an impact outside the town. Coming from a military family, she knows the hardships troops face when they are deployed overseas: loneliness, sadness, hopelessness.

She hoped to curb those negative feelings with “Operation: Letters to Soldiers.”

When the letter box debuted in April, she wasn’t expecting much. A couple hundred letters over a few months, if anything. But after a social media post, the community sprang to action. A local artist donated his time and talents to paint the box, decorated in a camouflage and American-flag design with two service members on the side. The owner of a local furniture company donated a protective coating.

Instead of leaving the letter box in just one place, Schorr decided it should travel during the academic year. She took it to local schools so students could correspond with military members.

In just four months, the box collected more than 1,600 letters.

“It means a lot to them knowing they’re being thought about and missed by total strangers,” Schorr said of service members.

The initiative costs nothing except time, Schorr said. All materials and labor were donated, and community members don’t even need a stamp.

Schorr, Rise Reality Co. and a nonprofit called Key to Giving teamed up with the United Service Organizations of Central and Southern Ohio, which places stamps on the letters and disperses them to U.S. military personnel around the globe.

“Just a simple message from a 7-year-old saying, ‘You’re my hero,’ means so much,” said Sue Ann Carroll, the community-relationships coordinator for USO of Central and Southern Ohio. “And the whole story of the ‘traveling mailbox’ really adds to that.”

Schorr has been contacted by communities across the country wanting a military mailbox. She said she plans to begin filling orders in the winter, charging about $500 for materials and shipping, with all proceeds going to veteran services.

She hopes people will leave return addresses on the letters so that kids can become “pen pals” with military members, with hopes they can meet someday.

The “mailbox” will hit the road again in August, visiting schools and other places in the community. By October, the box will need cosmetic work after seasonal sun damage to the paint, so Schorr is engaging Lancaster High School students by running a contest for the next design.

Lancaster Mayor David Scheffler, who is a Vietnam veteran, said he was not surprised by the patriotic city’s response to Operation: Letters to Soldiers.

“To see our community react in such a positive way is so heartwarming.”

Originally published for The Columbus Dispatch on July 23, 2018.

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