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Organization that helps send gifts to soldiers takes next step

VIDALIA, Miss. (MCT) - It seems God has an efficient way of communicating with Pattie Jones.

"Somehow God just drops it in my head," she said.

And that communication ultimately has led to more than 2,000 blessings in the form of gifts from home to U.S. military members serving our country overseas.

When Jones' charitable group GRITS -- Gifts Raised in the South -- had grown to the point of needing to seek official non-profit status, Jones said God led her to exactly the people who could guide her through that tedious process of becoming a 501(c)(3) organization.

Jones received a letter from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service on July 21, telling her that status had been granted for GRITS.

Approximately five years ago, Jones, who lives in Vidalia, wanted to send a care package to a family friend serving in the military overseas.

She went online to the U.S. Postal Service site and ordered its specific boxes used for shipping items to military members.

Jones thought she had ordered 10 boxes. Turns out, she ordered 10 cases -- 250 boxes in all.

That's when God first dropped into Jones' head the idea that became GRITS, which works each year to send hundreds of boxes of necessities and fun gift items to soldiers serving away from their homes and families.

After ordering what she thought was 10 boxes, Jones got a call from officials at the Vidalia post office, telling her the boxes -- all 250 of them -- had arrived. That's how she discovered her mistake.

"They said they would take the boxes back. I asked him if they had other people here who would use them pretty quickly. He told me, yes, they would eventually have people who would use them, but it was the way he said it," Jones said.

The man at the post office hesitated when he answered her. She knew those boxes would be there awhile.

"I started to think about that. It bothered me."

Jones asked the man at the post office if he would mind if she took some of the boxes to some area schools to see if they wanted to fill them up with items for military members.

Since that time, Jones and others who operate GRITS have sent more than 2,000 boxes filled with toiletries, snacks, games and other happy items to U.S. military members.

A little something from home

Jones and her group is on the constant lookout for individuals, civic, church and school groups who want to take a box -- or 20 -- fill them with items for soldiers and pay the cost of postage.

Where GRITS goes to work is getting the boxes packed up and ready to ship and addressed properly with all of the custom forms necessary to get them to soldiers.

GRITS, through its Facebook page primarily, each year looks for a soldier with a Miss-Lou connection. Jones contacts the soldier to make sure it's OK that the boxes are shipped to them.

"We don't want to just barrage them with 400-500 boxes," she said.

GRITS asks the soldier to then distribute the boxes to others, looking out specifically for those serving who have no family or others who will be able to send them something for Christmas.

"We got a letter from someone who had just had his third child. He told us he sent his whole paycheck home to his family and had basically nothing left. He told us he had packed one toothbrush when he deployed and how much he appreciated getting a new one," in the box he got from GRITS, Jones said. "He said a toothbrush at the base is $10 each."

At age 22, John Dale Loomis found himself on the Bagram Air Base in  Afghanistan, serving with the 10-86 Transportation Company with the Louisiana National Guard.

He was selected by GRITS in 2011 to receive and distribute its care packages.

"It was actually overwhelming, the reactions I saw from people receiving these boxes," Loomis said. "To see that so many people from back home took the time and effort to do something to make us feel special. It was very humbling. It made us feel appreciated."

Loomis, a 2007 graduate of Vidalia High School, was in Afghanistan for 10 months. He said those he served with became like family, and the best part of the gift boxes was seeing them happy.

"Lots of people didn't expect anything like that. Seeing them with the boxes and boxes of supplies, cards, games, magazines ... it was a good feeling. These people become your family and to see everyone happy and enjoying their time together, it made me very proud," he said.

Today, Loomis, 25, still serves in the Louisiana National Guard, is a full-time student at University of Louisiana at Monroe and works for the Vidalia Police Department.

He also plans to volunteer for GRITS.

"If you can spare any time or money, it will be very appreciated," he said.

GRITS provides a list of suggested items to those filling boxes, like toiletries, eye drops, baby wipes, coffee, beef jerky, trail mix, games, magazines, Bibles, magazines, entertainment stuff. No alcohol, pork or pornography can be shipped.

"They tell us they use lots of baby wipes because of all of the sand that gets all over everything. We also ask that they not send canned good. Who wants to get a can of green beans? We want to send them items they want to eat. Plus, they don't have can openers. They need food items they can put in their pockets and take on missions with them," Jones said.

Frisbees, footballs and basketballs are great, but they must be deflated.

"We encourage them to send a pump to blow them up. If we send them with air in them, they will explode on the trip there. Also, any chips must be something like Pringles in a can. Chips shipped in bags explode and they will open boxes with chips all over everything," she said.

GRITS coordinates its efforts with the Vidalia post office and works to ship all boxes the first Saturday in December.

"On the Friday night before, we close our office door -- Reed Insurance at 107 Carter St., Vidalia -- at 5 and reopen at 6 p.m. and the packing party begins. Usually 20 to 30 people are here to help pack the boxes and get them ready to ship. We load them up on my husband's horse trailer and take them to the post office."

Donations appreciated

Postage, which has grown from $11.95 per box five years ago to almost $16 per box today, is becoming cost prohibitive for many groups seeking to help, Jones said.

"That's almost $160 to ship 10 boxes," she said. "Not many groups can afford that."

Jones hopes GRITS' new non-profit status, which makes donations to it tax deductible, will help raise money to defray the cost of postage.

"More than anything, I want this effort to grow, and I hope if we are able to find those corporations who make donations to non-profit charities, we can offset the cost of postage and we can grow the number of boxes we send out. I would love for us to send 1,000 boxes," Jones said.

Those who would like to donate or are interested in collecting items to fill boxes can email her at OperationsGRITS@gmail.com or visit the group's Facebook page.

"To my knowledge, we are the only group in the area that does anything like this," Jones said. "It's a charity that says thanks. We're not curing anything, we just say thank you to the men and women who serve our country and protect our freedom."

(c) 2014, The Natchez Democrat. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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