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When you're in the military, the holiday season can be lonely without celebrating with your friends and family.

Pat McKinney, head of the health and physical education department at Dallastown Area School District and adviser for the district's Volunteer Club, recognized that after the 9/11 attacks and decided to do something about it.

She started "Remembering the Troops" that November. The program collected food, toys and other gifts for service men and women, all of which are shipped in boxes to them during the Christmas season. Teachers, whole classrooms or individual students can sign up to "adopt" service members in any branch.

The program started small, with a budget of approximately $1,200. McKinney explained that each part of the program is donated, from the money for the budget, which pays for shipping, to the goods themselves.

Since its inception, the program has grown beyond what McKinney ever expected. This year, for the first time, she had members of the community and businesses that weren't even part of the district asking to be involved.

All in all, between 65 and 70 men and women serving the country were adopted. Many soldiers were adopted by more than one person thanks to the high volunteer turnout.

Correspondence: Goods sent to the troops include food, candy, magazines, drink mixes, toiletries, puzzles, board games and even a skateboard. Students are encouraged to write to their adopted soldier by their teachers, sometimes beginning a long-lasting correspondence.

"I think the elementary kids and intermediate kids love when they get their letter back," McKinney said. "One group wrapped everything individually, so it was like opening Christmas presents. They just love doing something for someone else."

Each year, McKinney tries to focus on different groups of service men and women to switch things up. Typically, a variety of branches are represented, but this year was the first year the program was able to ship boxes to the Coast Guard. Last year, the program sent toys and gifts to the war dogs after a Dallastown graduate was killed while trying to save his war dog from a fire.

"Just getting the community involved this year was huge," McKinney said. "I've never had people just randomly call me and say, 'I’d like to help.' I had quite a few of those calls this year."

One class: Kelly Strayer, a high school social studies teacher, has participated in the program each year since its inception. She explained that it's typically difficult to get high school-aged students excited or involved in the classroom exercise. Many don't know what to write to the soldier or view it as no more than an assignment. This year, Strayer's students were more involved after they heard from the two Coast Guard members they were sending items.

Sometimes the students or teachers won't hear back because of how busy the service member is, but when Strayer sent emails to their Coast Guard members and received replies, she read them aloud to her class, which helped personalize the act for her students.

"Usually when we do this, we don't have a lot of opportunity to make a connection," Strayer said. "We would send things away and sometimes they would reach out to us, but most of the time you didn’t really get a chance to make the direct connection with them."

This year, with the direct connection, every kid in her class, which is mostly ninth-graders, brought in items to send to the two Coast Guard members they had adopted. They were excited to learn that one adoptee had two Siberian huskies and was a fan of the New England Patriots, giving them topics to specifically write and ask about.

For Strayer, the program works well with her curriculum because she can teach students about world events.

"I'm a social studies teacher, and I think that they sometimes don't realize how connected it all is," Strayer said. "We can bring it to a level that they can see things at a larger scale, but at the same time it personalizes it and brings it into our studies as well."

Personal connection: Superintendent Ronald Dyer has a personal connection to the program because his son is in the Army and has been deployed three times. He learned of the program in 2005 when he began working at the district, and he was nervous about having his son benefit, but he later heard how much the men in his son's company appreciated the gifts.

"I heard from him just how special that was, and for the troops it was such a bright spot in their life to open those boxes," Dyer said. "My son was so moved by it."

McKinney said she hopes to instill an attitude of gratefulness toward the military in students so they continue it throughout their lives.

"As long as I teach at Dallastown, I'll always do this program somehow. I think it's that important," she said.

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