Started in 2008 by Mark Evans of Elk Grove Village with the simple idea to send a few dozen pizzas to soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pizzas 4 Patriots has grown into a record-setting charity that has shipped more than a million slices of pizza to military men and women. In 2010, it spun off Packages 4 Patriots, led by Elk Grove Village military parents Kathi and Randy Mode, which has shipped tons of candy, coffee, toiletries and other items in care packages.
Now the marriage of Pizza 4 Patriots and Packages 4 Patriots has produced a new kid-powered charitable endeavor -- Operation Cookie Drop.
"That's 13,000 boxes of Girl Scout cookies," says Frances Lehning, organizer of the massive cookie project, standing before a wall of cookie boxes in a room of Lutheran Church of the Holy Spirit in Elk Grove Village, headquarters for Packages 4 Patriots. Having developed an assembly line plan and a blueprint to make sure all six cookie flavors and 40 of the differently shaped boxes fit together like a jigsaw puzzle in each shipping box, Lehning didn't know what to expect at Saturday's first packing event.
"It was phenomenal. There was good chaos. Cookies and girls everywhere," says Lehning, a leader with Girl Scout Service Unit 406, which takes in Elk Grove Village, Schaumburg, Streamwood, Hanover Park and Hoffman Estates. Lehning's Scout daughters Carissa, 14, and Ashley, 8, her husband, Rich, and son Sean, a 16-year-old with Boy Scout Troop 493 in Schaumburg, also helped.
"I never even got a count of how many kids came," Lehning says of the dozens of volunteer packers. "The girls packed every shipping box we had, and they were bummed when we ran out of shipping boxes."
Hatched in July, the fledgling project begins shipping Tuesday and will get more boxes, cookies and volunteers to reach its goal of sending 13,000 boxes of cookies to veteran homes, hospitals and other organizations in all 50 states before Veterans Day on Nov. 11, Lehning says.
"I'm the pizza guy, and she's the cookie lady," Evans says of Lehning.
"She's a force of nature," says Kathi Mode, who lends cookie support even while her Packages 4 Patriots keeps expanding. Mode's a force of nature, too, Evans says.
"We did just ship 20 pairs of Rollerblades to Bagram (Airfield) in Afghanistan," Kathi Mode says.
The Modes, Lehning and Evans all marvel at the army of volunteers who step up to help them accomplish ambitious projects that would be impossible without them.
With his wife and charity partner, Gail, Evans visits the nearby site of other projects in the works.
"Isn't that amazing?" he asks as he points to a massive U.S. flag flying in a field on a farm along Higgins Road, surrounded by the Elk Grove Village industrial park. Timothy Allen "Tim" Busse, a relative of the legendary Busse family that settled on the farm in 1848 and was instrumental in the founding of the suburbs, made sure that flagpole was erected last week. Busse says the flag had to be flying on Sept. 11, which also marked the anniversary of the death of his father, Allen F. Busse.
An Army veteran from the Vietnam era, Tim Busse, 62, also donated a portion of his farm to grow Pumpkins 4 Patriots, another project envisioned by Evans, which donates pumpkins to veterans and other charities.
"I don't want this to seem like Tim or I did it all," notes Evans, a former Army master sergeant. He says the flag and pole were donated by the Thomas Fleming Flag Company in Waukegan and erected with help from the American Fence Professionals in Arlington Heights.
Saying that he is motivated by the service and sacrifice of all veterans and their families and a love of his country, Evans is working on a new proposal called Operation American Flag Challenge. A goal of seeing a flag flying from every home and business might seem overly ambitious, but so did pizza deliveries to Iraq, roller skates showing up in Afghanistan and 13,000 boxes of Girl Scouts cookies on their way to veterans in every state.