Just reading the short list of Lilly Nutter's volunteer commitments can induce exhaustion: Welcome Wagon, Chamber of Commerce, Cancer Society, the local food pantry.
But what the 98-year-old great-great-grandmother can usually be found doing is pushing a lawn chair on wheels filled with carefully taped shoebox packages through the hallways of her retirement complex in Warren, Ind. Each package is on the first leg of its journey to Iraq and Afghanistan, where Nutter hopes it will comfort a soldier she has never met.
Nutter's care package project isn't a casual hobby. In eight years, she has sent more than 1,000 carefully wrapped packages crammed with the foods and other items that soldiers crave: tuna fish, candy, peanut butter, cinnamon rolls, M&Ms, toiletries, wet wipes.
"I feel so blessed to having been able to accomplish this, and thank our loving Father for granting me the health and strength to do so," she says.
Birth of a project
A Chicago native, Nutter worked for the Department of Defense in California and later at Grissom Air Force Base near Peru, Ind. She retired many years ago to her late husband's hometown of Warren, a tiny community nestled on the banks of the Salamonie River, where the care package project was born.
It grew out of an e-mail Nutter received in 2003 from her grandson, Kent Dolasky, who was serving in the Army in Iraq.
"He asked if I could send care packages to his unit," she recalls. "He said some of the troops didn't receive anything whatsoever." So she began rounding up shoeboxes, filling them with candy, toiletries, items she thought they would appreciate.
Not long after she began sending packages, Nutter says, a man contacted the clerk of courts in Warren and began asking questions about the community.
It turned out that he had been stationed on the oil carrier USS Salamonie during World War II, and wanted to establish a link with the community on the river that gave the ship its name. A luncheon was organized, and the man, who represented an organization of Salamonie veterans, soon heard about Nutter's project.
"He asked if his group could adopt the project," Nutter says. "Since then, I've received checks from 30 states, more than $10,000 in total. They're the ones who have made it possible to do this."
Helping with the cause
As word of Nutter's project spread, others have pitched in to offer money and items: sunglasses donated by Nutter's ophthalmologist; toothpaste and dental floss from her dentist; money from her son's car club in San Francisco. A woman in Fort Wayne provides shoeboxes.
At the request of some of the troops serving in Iraq, the project even expanded to provide items for the civilians caught in the middle of the war.
"Some of the soldiers established a secret route to a hospital that treated a lot of children. They also wanted something to give to the children and they were very specific: suckers, Tootsie Rolls and stuffed animals."
Nutter's appeal for stuffed animals drew donations from everywhere, including her neighbors at her retirement community. One donated her entire Beanie Baby collection.
The soldiers continued to bring stuffed animals and treats to the children until it was no longer safe to do so, Nutter says.
No stopping her
Although she opposed the U.S. decision to invade Iraq in 2003, Nutter believes that she has a duty to support the troops who are risking their lives.
Aside from the deep sense of well-being that comes from reaching out to help a stranger, Nutter has also collected a few tangible rewards along the way: red roses from a grateful returning soldier, countless notes and cards, and most cherished: a sweatshirt from Iraq that has a picture of a camel on it.
Even as macular degeneration has robbed her of her ability to drive, and makes it increasingly difficult to read, Nutter tries to maintain her breakneck volunteer pace, which she believes has helped her ward off many of the trials of aging.
"Still walking, and other than diminished vision and hearing, not an ache or pain at 98," she says.
Julie Creek is a writer in Indiana.