The/Studio: Introduce yourself. Tell our readers a little bit about who you are!
Vickie: Full Circle Home is made up of 2 military moms – Lisa Miller, an Army mom, and myself, Vickie Durfee, a Marine mom. Both of our sons are now out of the military, but 8 years ago they were both deployed to Afghanistan and to Iraq.
Lisa and I met in the Rochester Airport in 2006, when our sons were coming home from different deployments. Big hugs, congratulations, etc. I didn’t think I would ever see her again. The following September, when my son Gil was going to Iraq, I thought I would help his squad of 12 men send their Christmas gifts home to their moms and wives or other special women in their lives. Lisa found out what I was doing through a mutual friend, called me, and after an hour on the phone and many tears, we got to work. The first year we sent out not only the 12 gift sets we had hoped to, but 150 boxes across the country and even to bases all around the world! We thought we would be doing this for just the time our boys were deployed, but we started getting emails and letters from the women who received the boxes, tearful calls lasting an hour on Christmas Day, and even getting together with local recipients. All this made us realize we had filled a need that had never been adequately addressed. We continued our efforts with Mother’s Day and have since added Father’s Day. We also go room to room at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda. We have sent out over 15,000 gift sets since that first Christmas.
The/Studio: What a beautiful story! Can you explain what goes into each gift package?
Vickie: At Christmas, the women’s gift set consists of 12 individually wrapped gifts for each day of Christmas. (If we get a request for Hanukkah, we consolidate them into 8!) Each has a tag that reads, “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…” on up to 12. They are all personal items that help them remember that they are important too! When someone deploys, those at home have to pick up all the responsibilities and are also focusing on those who are deployed, sending care packages, photos, etc. And if there are children at home, that adds another dimension, since a mom will have to navigate the emotions of having a dad deployed and often in danger.
Each gift set is exactly alike. We start wrapping Christmas in June! Plus, if gifts go to many women at the same base, we want them all to feel equally important and not compare the boxes. The men’s gift set also has gifts especially for him and will go to dads, husbands, uncles, or any other man that is significant in their lives.
The most important item in the boxes is a handwritten love note from the deployed troops to their loved ones. This of course is a huge challenge and is what sets Full Circle Home apart from all other organizations. These boxes are NOT care packages to those at home. They are first and foremost gifts FROM the deployed to their heroes at home. Full Circle Home just makes it happen.
Sponsors of the boxes can also write a note of support that will go into a box, so those receiving them will feel the love from both their service member and the communities across the country. It empowers them and lets them know that they are not alone in this deployment.
The/Studio: This is fantastic! What your organization does is so special. What have you learned since starting Full Circle Home?
Vickie: We knew what was needed in terms of the services we provide, but we are venturing into areas we were completely unschooled in. We had to learn the pathways to reaching the troops to let them know about what we could do for them. This included learning what a FRG or FRO or Ombudsman was and then how to reach them. Learning who was deploying at what time from what branch has been an ongoing process, and our track record is now our best calling card. Word of mouth is powerful when contacts are responsible for up to 4,000 troops at a time.
Social media has been an important tool, and one that we had limited experience in. While we can’t claim this as one of our strengths, we manage to get the word out. (However, we would still love someone give us a hand in this area!)
The/Studio: What about Full Circle Home are you most proud of?
Vickie: We’re proud of the fact that we pushed through all the challenges of what we didn’t know, the “no”s that we worked around, and the tenacity we’ve had to have to do what others will not do. This program is labor-intensive and we hear over and over how we could simplify it to make life easier for us. But then it would not be as impacting nor personal.
We’re also especially proud of the fact that we are 100% volunteer and work out of donated space. This allows virtually all donations to go to the programs.
The/Studio: That is absolutely something to be proud of! What are some of the greatest challenges you face with your organization?
Vickie: We had 2 major challenges:
1. The military doesn’t just tell you the units that are deploying, nor the names of the troops to contact. We had to figure it out through ongoing research, emails, phone calls, and more.
2. Our background is not in fundraising, yet we need to raise about $120,000 each year through direct monetary donations, sponsored wrapping events, and donation of products. Plus asking for money was/is not in our comfort zone. However, no one will help the troops in this way if we don’t ask; we simply have to move forward. And we do.
In an effort to raise funds, we have had guest speakers, been guest bartenders (I will keep my “day job”!), had Christmas Bazaars, Volleyball Tournaments (no one would ever pick me!), Motorcycle Poker Runs (I’ve been on a motorcycle once), Alex and Ani nights, Bingo nights, and more. If it’s legal and moral, we’re not above trying it! But we’ve found the Sponsored Wraps are the best way to raise funds.
The/Studio: Haha… That’s great! Where do you see Full Circle Home in 10 years?
Vickie: Lisa and I are lucky to be able to volunteer our time to run Full Circle Home. However, we know that we need to have systems in place for when we can no longer do this. We want to grow the support, so we can hire a very limited staff — a Director and Administrative Assistant — to continue our efforts into the future. While we are very proud that we are 100% volunteer at this time, we understand that realistically we will have to have at least a minimum staff to carry on after we cannot.
The/Studio: What type of legacy do you want to leave?
Vickie: I want to leave a legacy of honoring, celebrating and connecting our troops and their heroes. There are so many incredibly important charities and causes that need our attention; however, without the sacrifices and dedication of our volunteer military, many of these would be merely a luxury or not a possibility at all. [Domestic violence, cruelty to animals and more might not rise to the level of importance if we did not have the freedoms we currently have!] I believe supporting our military is the foundation to helping other charities and causes. Helping to fortify the supporting relationships between the troops and their loved ones can become even more critical if the worst happens and there are injuries or even casualties.
The/Studio: We couldn’t agree with you more. What is the story behind the custom product that you produced with The/Studio?
Vickie: In 2010, our story was told in Family Circle Magazine. Jen Keller, whose sister was serving in the Army, contacted us because she wanted to help. We drove from Rochester to NYC with a truck full of gifts, wrap, tags, and boxes to hold a Wrapping Event in her home. We then sponsored her brother-in-law’s unit when they were deployed. This past Mother’s Day, Jen helped us wrap at the Naval Observatory in Washington DC and had an idea that she wanted to dedicate her Arctic Polar Circle Marathon to the troops and FCH. She is running on October 24 and 25 in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland with about 200 other runners. Jen has encouraged others to make donations to FCH. She said, “I will proudly and prominently wear the American Flag and Full Circle Home’s logo as I race to the finish line of my most formidable endurance test yet, a tribute to the courage and sacrifices of our Armed Forces and their families at home. I hope you will join me in showing our appreciation for the men and women who protect our precious freedom and make our way of life possible.”
The/Studio: We wish Jen Keller good luck on her upcoming marathon. How are you going to use this custom product?
Vickie: The/Studio made the patches that will be on Jen’s running gear! (We will also be giving them to the drivers of the LeMans Series race car that sports our logo!)
The/Studio: Do you have any promotions you would like to offer our community?
Vickie: Buy 1, Give 2. If civilians would like to give their loved one the same gift set, they can contact us and we will send their special person a FCH holiday box. All Buy 1 Give 2 sets also have some information inside that describes FCH and lets the recipient know that a military mom or wife will also enjoy a box. In paying retail for the set, we will be able to send a second box from a service member to their hero at home.
The/Studio: Do you have any upcoming events that our community members can attend?
Vickie: We will have a special Wrapping Event in Washington DC for sponsors, congressional spouses, and other DC dignitaries. At this event we will be preparing the boxes for distribution at Walter Reed the next day. If anyone would be interested in becoming 2-Star Sponsor and attending, they should contact us.
The/Studio: Is there anything our community members can do to help Full Circle Home?
Vickie: Organizations that are in driving distance can host a Sponsored Wrapping Event. At this event, a group will help us “wrap” gifts (they are not actually wrapped, but put into glossy boxes and tied with a “Faux Bow” so no wrapping skills are needed). The group underwrites the cost of those gifts and can put a special note in the box. [Companies such as Exelis, Morgan Stanley, Enterprise Rental, Vertex and more have sponsored wraps, many on a yearly basis.]
We have a wish list of items! Strapping tape (who know we could get so excited about strapping tape?) purse size tissues, cushy spa socks, 65lb. white card stock, HP 950/951 Ink. Many companies and schools will put out donation bins to collect them.
The/Studio: Is there anything else we should know about your wonderful organization?
Vickie: The experiences over the years have been far beyond what I would ever have imagined, which confirms that many people see the importance of what we do. We were contacted by the USO to collaborate on our Mother’s Day program, and teamed up for 3 years.
We wrapped with the Congressional Spouses, Michelle Obama, and 2 times with Dr. Biden at the Bidens’ residence. This relationship continues on, and we have been delighted to attend their holiday parties for 3 years. [The first time we thought the invitation was a scam to get our social security numbers! Yes, we have stories!]
We were honored at the then-Air Force Chief of Staff Norty Schwartz and his wife Suzie’s home for a wonderful and intimate evening along with 13 other recipients.We were on Fox News, the Today Show with Kathie Lee and Hoda, Better.tv, and on local media on a regular basis.
We’ve had a recording artist put our photos to her song “On Christmas Day”. We’ve delivered a local box to an air force fire fighter’s wife by by fire truck. We’ve wrapped on Capitol Hill down the hall from the Senate in session. [We got in the Senators’ elevator with all our boxes by mistake. They were gracious, if not surprised.]
And for all this excitement and wonderful experiences, the day-to-day is schlepping boxes to wraps, counting inventory (and recounting inventory), mailing, packing, and hours at the post office (they are wonderful, by the way!). Not much glamour :o) — but wonderful conversations, hugs, and appreciation of their efforts when we finally get to meet someone who sent or received the boxes! The connections — the love — is the best part, the reason for what we do. We have laughed, cried, consoled, and encouraged. We’ve had our fair share of pizza and Dunkin Donuts and we drive to wrapping events from Buffalo to Virginia. And we would not have it any other way.
Thank you, Vickie, for sharing your story with us! It is truly an honor to share your message and organization with our community. Your commitment to our troops and their loved ones is truly amazing. You and Lisa are heroes as well!