Longwood Gardens’ visitors got chance to enjoy light display, light up troops’ lives
By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times
At first, the visitors at Longwood Gardens Thursday night were skeptical: Were these Red Cross volunteers trying to sell them something?
Once they realized that the smiling faces were handing out free, holiday cards destined for the military, the cynicism faded, said Rich Yoegel, chairman of the Red Cross Chester County Leadership Council.
Yoegel and a contingent of Red Cross volunteers and staffers from the Red Cross’s Southeastern Pennsylvania (SEPA) Chapter were stationed in the visitors’ center at Longwood, where some of their recruits fanned out across the gardens in search of people interested in sending holiday messages to troops and veterans.
The initiative was part of the American Red Cross “Holiday Mail for Heroes” program, an effort that has resulted in 4.7 million cards delivered since the program’s inception in 2006, Yoegel said. The cards are distributed at military installations, in V.A. and military hospitals and to veterans’ organization in the U.S. and overseas.
“How can you say no to signing a card to support people who have served our country?” asked William Pasquale, a board member and disaster responder.
To her surprise, Heather Steiger, a board member, actually encountered one such curmudgeon, but he was the exception, the volunteers said. Victoria Genuardi, a Red Cross employee, said she was particularly moved by a couple of veterans who not only welcomed the idea and but also took extra time to craft heartfelt messages.
Board member Steve Shapiro said this year marked the first time the Red Cross used Longwood Gardens as a venue, and they were impressed with the staff as well as the reception from the public. An added bonus: About 500 cards were signed.
Richard Runcie traveled to Longwood from Mount Holly, N.J., with Karen DiAntonio, of Mount Laurel, N.J. He said he was delighted by the outreach, reciting a long list of relatives with military service. “This is a great idea,” he said. “I was glad to participate.”
So was Jennifer Stokker of Downingtown. She scheduled her trip to Longwood with her almost 3-year-old daughter Madelyn because a friend had posted on Facebook that the Red Cross would be offering the cards. She also wanted to make a donation to the nonprofit, which responded to 733 regional disasters this past year.
Yoegel said soliciting funds was not the goal of Thursday night’s event, but those who were interested could take advantage of a raffle opportunity. A $10 donation also bought a chance to win a 42-inch JVC television.
Stokker got a call on her cellphone at 8 p.m.: Was she still on the property so she could claim her TV? Absolutely.
“I was shocked,” she said, acknowledging her good fortune and the fact that one good deed can produce another. The family’s current TV: a hand-me-down from relatives.
Founded in 1916 as a chartered unit of the American National Red Cross, the Southeastern Pennsylvania (SEPA) Chapter of the American Red Cross serves nearly four million people in Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties. In 2012, the agency provided financial assistance to 3,293 people who lost their homes to disasters, according to Red Cross records. It also trained 113,355 people in life-saving techniques.