SUWANEE - Gal pals Ansley Garland and Jenna Cutsuries, both age 7, had the best birthday party ever. In Iraq, 80 U.S. soldiers will be more comfortable because of it.
In lieu of a birthday party, "American Idol" star Diana DeGarmo led Ansley, Jenna and 23 of their young friends on a shopping spree at the Suwanee Wal-Mart for useful items to send to those soldiers.
"Each soldier in an entire battalion (based in Fort Stewart) will have a box," said Shana Garland, Ansley's mom.
Wal-Mart's party was the epitome of organized planning. Waiting for each little girl was a cart with her name on it and a map. Following the map, each girl cruised the store, stopping at set locations to pick up pre-selected items. On the other side of the world, soldiers will open boxes filled with luxury items like baby wipes, foot powder, socks, peanut butter crackers, beef jerky, paper, pens, envelopes and candy. Each box cost approximately $75.
The Garland family does a lot of community work, and Shana serves as committee chair for the High Hope Service Center gala ball. Here was an opportunity to teach the girls about giving.
DeGarmo, too, has done her share of volunteer service.
"When she was a little girl, we used to go with people in our church to the street corners in Atlanta on holidays and pass out food to the homeless," said Brenda DeGarmo, Diana's mom. "She would sing for them. We are blessed, so we shared with others."
Diana's brother, Army Capt. David Evans, is currently serving in Iraq, after having served one year in Afghanistan, so she understands their need for supplies.
"Since Hurricane Katrina, the soldiers feel like we have forgotten about them," she said. "This is something I would like to keep going - maybe do another shopping trip soon."
The girls and their parents raised more than $4,000 with which to purchase items. Beef O'Brady's and Dillard's Barbeque donated food for the participants. The girls packed the boxes themselves and wrote letters to put in each box. Sen. Saxby Chambliss and former Gov. Roy Barnes sent their own stack of letters, each one hand-signed, expressing their appreciation for the soldiers' sacrifices.
Army Spc. Dana McCloud, who returned from Iraq last week, presented Ansley with a special set of dog tags and Jenna with the Suwanee Patriot Award. When he is not fighting for his country, McCloud manages Wal-Mart's tire and lube express.
"These little girls' lives will be forever changed," said Judy Waters, executive director for the Community Foundation to Northeast Georgia and former Gwinnett County Commissioner who helped arrange the event.
Brenda DeGarmo, who taught her daughter the spirit of giving at a young age, agreed.
"If you just give (money), the kids don't get the gist of it," she said. "If they get out and work for it, they understand what it means to give."