TARENTUM, Pa. — Sam Lombardo of New Kensington on Friday encouraged Plum High School students to step up whenever they see a need in the community.
“If you see something that needs to be done, don't wait for the next guy to do it,” he said. “It doesn't take long to learn.”
Lombardo then explained how he, an Arnold business owner who had no direct connection to the military, came to spearhead Cookies for Our Troops.
The nonprofit organization has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to send care packages to troops stationed overseas.
The students, members of either Plum's junior ROTC program or Girls' Leader Association, visited Sam's Pop and Beer Shop on Friday to deliver two pallets' worth of supplies that students throughout the district had donated since January.
Amy Martello, a Plum English teacher and the GLA's new adviser, said the organization has been collecting items annually for Cookies for Our Troops for at least eight years.
Students Danielle Hiener, a senior, and Jessica Denzer, a junior, helped organize the collection this year.
“I feel it's really important to help the soldiers because they give up so much for us,” Hiener said. “And it's nice to have all the schools in the district come together for this.”
“Our goal is to promote community services,” said Tim Conley, a retired Air Force chief master sergeant who teaches the JROTC program with Terry Speer.
How ‘Cookies' began
Lombardo told the students the initiative began 11 years ago with a request for donations for a going-away party for New Kensington-based reservists and recollections from a veteran of the homemade cookies he anticipated while serving in Vietnam.
The plan to ship cookies to Afghanistan and Iraq soon morphed into weekly care packages of snacks, toiletries, tools and entertainment.
The shipments grew to include funnel cake machines, popcorn machines, microwaves, pizza ovens and Christmas trees.
Lombardo estimated he's mailed four pallets of Girl Scout cookies and 10 tons of freezer pops to soldiers over the years.
He said there has only been a few weeks in which nothing has been mailed.
Even as the U.S. presence in the Middle East dwindles, Lombardo said he continues to send packages to every soldier whose name and address he is given — and usually to their entire unit.
“Every name we get now, there's always 30 to 40 guys attached,” he said. “You might as well take care of all of them.”
He said they're regularly sending packages to five units — for a total of about 150 troops.
Lombardo showed the students one of the 13 binders he's filled with thank-you letters and pictures of soldiers enjoying their treats.
“This is how I get paid for doing this,” he said.
He passed around one of the “challenge coins” — medallions with military insignias used for morale — that he has been given as a gift from a grateful Springdale-area soldier.
He also displayed one of about 30 American flags he's been sent, this one from a Chinook helicopter that operated in Afghanistan.
Eventually, Lombardo plans to display the many flags, coins, memorabilia, pictures and letters he has received.
But not yet: “I won't hang any of them until this war is over.”