Sometimes, when Wendy and John Rocca open their front door to retrieve the newspaper, they find jars of peanut butter and jelly on their steps.
"We have no idea who delivered them," said Wendy. But they know where the jars are going — to Iraq, Afghanistan, South Korea — anyplace where U.S. troops are serving who need a little something from "back home," not to mention a written reassurance that someone is thinking about them.
The Roccas are the founders of Operation American Soldier, a Watertown, Mass., charity that each month packs and ships hundreds of "cheer boxes" to servicemen and women abroad, a burgeoning enterprise that began simply enough in 2003 when their daughter, serving in Iraq, asked them to send her some toiletries and snacks she couldn’t acquire locally.
After her box of goodies arrived, their daughter asked them if they could package some things for others in her unit who had no one back home to send them anything. The Roccas obliged, and word got around — to say the least.
The Roccas and their army of volunteers now have shipped more than 30,000 pounds of the little things of everyday American life — bags of coffee, toilet paper, Reese’s Pieces, playing cards, hand-warmers, books, even sports bras — to military personnel.
"We were just two people packing boxes," said Wendy, a real estate agent with Century 21 Commonwealth in Watertown. "It started in the dining room and moved to the basement. Then it exploded."
Although through the early years they acquired the help of volunteers and financial donors, their endeavor really took off in 2009 after Wendy and her husband, who works part-time as an agent for the brokerage, won "Good Neighbor" awards from their local and state Realtor associations, and area television stations and newspapers reported on their activities.
The local Marine Club now provides space to organize and pack the 150 or so boxes that they typically shipped once a month. And after the couple won a Good Neighbor Award from the National Association of Realtors in November, that prize and the resulting publicity brought such an outpouring that they were able to increase their mailings to twice a month, sometimes boosting their output to as many as 300 boxes.
The boxes contain more than commodities. Based on information supplied by the person who recommended the recipient to Operation American Soldier, the volunteers may pack something more personal, such as a teddy bear or Frisbee, John said.
"And each box has a handwritten letter explaining to the soldier who we are and what we do and how we started it," Wendy said.
The organization, which operates under the auspices of a local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post, gathers names of recipients from e-mails to its website, OperationAmericanSoldier.org. Often the soldiers are nominated by other soldiers, they said.
"A lot of times, we will get a letter saying, ‘Thank you for remembering us,’ " John said. "It blows me away. We’ll get a letter from (a soldier) that says, ‘I’m OK, but my buddy is not getting anything — can you send him a package?’ "
Where the soldier is stationed abroad is irrelevant, the Roccas said.
"We don’t turn any soldier away," Wendy said. "We’ve gotten letters from soldiers in Cuba, Korea, South Africa."
In addition to individually donated and purchased items, Operation American Soldier regularly receives corporate donations from such companies as Dunkin’ Donuts (bagged coffee) and CVS stores (gummy bears, peanuts, tissues). A local T-shirt shop has provided shirts.
Each box typically weighs 15 pounds, said Wendy. Shipping costs vary widely, depending on weight and destination, she said.
John estimated that in the past year, a typical shipment of boxes cost $1,500, but costs are up now that output is up.
"The last shipping we did was 230 boxes, and that cost $3,445," Wendy said.
John, who in his full-time job serves as a police officer for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said that soldiers may go wanting for basic items — not because the military has failed to provide them, but because local post exchanges (stores for military personnel, also known as PXs) just can’t keep up with demand. Or the soldiers just have specific cravings, he said.
"We had an e-mail from somebody who asked for Reese’s Pieces — they like them but can’t get them over there, so we sent 20 pounds.
"We get requests for things like Hostess Cupcakes and potato chips — they get them (on their bases) shipped from Europe, and they don’t taste quite the same," he said.
The idea behind the group is not the "stuff," John said.
"The reason we do this is not because the military can or cannot supply it," he said. "It’s a matter of the soldiers not being forgotten by the American public — and that’s us.
"As long as we send a box, they don’t care what’s in the box," he said. "It’s the fact that a total stranger took the time to put a box together, that they took the time to write."
Now the effort is spreading beyond Massachusetts. The Roccas’ Good Neighbor Award in November spawned a "branch" operation, Wendy said. Christine Stalsonberg, an agent with Exit Realty Paramount in Traverse City, Mich., now also operates a local version of Operation American Soldier.
"We were chatting at (the NAR gathering) and she said she would be in touch," Wendy said. "We hear that all the time, but she actually did get in touch. She has her whole town behind her."
As the effort has grown, of course, it has taken an increasing amount of the Roccas’ time, even with a steady stream of volunteers, they said.
"Time?" responded John, laughing. "It used to take a couple of days a month, but now it’s two to three hours a day."
Somehow, Wendy said, they still manage to keep their real estate business going.
"I’m the No. 1 agent in my office," Wendy said. "This is why we’ve been able to continue this — I’ve built up a great referral business. Our name is out there, and it seems like we work 24-7."
Sometimes their charitable inclinations and business go hand-in-hand, she said.
"At every closing, (for) every real estate transaction, instead of a silly closing gift we have a list of five charities (including their own) that people can choose from, and we make a donation in their name," Wendy said.
"We’ve been so blessed, how can you not do this?" she said. "Real estate has been good to us — how can you not give back? These soldiers are out there every single day."