Twenty years ago, the U.S. military was fighting wars on two different fronts in response to the Sept. 11 attack — one in Iraq and the other in Afghanistan. Back in the U.S., an Oklahoma couple got the idea to pay tribute to military personnel in the Middle East by sending them care packages and ties they nicknamed “hugs” because they go around the neck.
In June 2004, they launched The Hugs Project, a nonprofit still sending care packages to military members nearly two decades later.
Photo Courtesy The Hugs Project
The Hugs Project was started by Ray and Karen Stark of Edmond, OK, as a “labor of love,” according to the organization’s website. Their mission was to ensure “every American service member knows they are loved and appreciated” by the folks back home.
One of the problems The Hugs Project aimed to address was a shortage of supplies in war zones.
Many needed supplies weren’t restocked because military leaders didn’t want to “leave tons of supplies” behind for whoever arrived when American troops decamped.
That inspired the Starks to start a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to ensure that overseas military personnel got items they needed but had difficulty finding. The Hugs Project was established to raise money so goods could be purchased and sent overseas.
“Our troops work hard every day, and when they finally get a break and can receive mail from home, we want them to find care packages overflowing with snacks, hygiene items, DVDs and CDs, Oreos, socks, and other much-needed items,” The Hugs Project stated on its website. “Most of all, we want them to experience the love we’ll be tucking inside, along with cooling ties and other items that remind them someone cares.”
Photo Courtesy The Hugs Project
In addition to sending care packages, the organization has worked with clinics in Oklahoma to help provide care for soldiers who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury. Through donations, The Hugs Project has funded care for returning troops, veterans, and first responders, none of whom had to pay for the care.
The nonprofit now has members in every state and 58 foreign countries.
Ray, a U.S. Navy veteran, serves as president. Karen, the executive director, received the Presidential Service Award from President George W. Bush in 2008.
Although the U.S. military was not engaged in active wars as of late 2023, it still has a large global presence.
According to Blue Marble, a Chicago Council on Global Affairs project, more than 170,000 troops are stationed in 170-plus countries outside the U.S. and its territories. As of June 2023, the U.S. Department of Defense reported that more than 30,000 U.S. troops were stationed in the Middle East alone.
Photo Courtesy U.S. Department of Defence
The Hugs Project continues to send gift packages overseas to troops. Currently, the most needed care package items include canned food, beef jerky, hygiene items, powdered drink packages, Band-Aids, fingernail clippers, nuts (other than peanuts), small sewing kits, snack crackers, protein bars, peanut butter, and microwave popcorn. The organization also recycles old, working cell phones and inkjet and laser cartridges.
Its 2023 Christmas Wish List included some of the above items and tree ornaments, candy, gum, and toy cars. The organization plans to send more than 400 Christmas care packages to troops “in harm’s way.”