When their son was wounded overseas, the Hope for Heroes program became even more of a fervent mission for Chip and Fran Shaffer.
Remembering and recognizing active military, wounded warriors and veterans is a major part of their lives.
“They are responsible for the freedom we enjoy every day,” Chip said. “Knowing that we appreciate them means the world to them.”
Chip Shaffer of O’Fallon is the Midwest Area Regional Coordinator for Epsilon Sigma Alpha’s Hope for Heroes Program.
The couple has been married for five and a half years, but have known each other 19 years. Their blended family of four children between them includes Anjelica McMurphy, 39; Christina Schneider, 38; Jason Harris, 35; and Chas Shaffer, 32.
They became involved in the local Xi Chi Chapter around 2007, and zeroed in on supporting the troops overseas as they fought in the war on terror.
“The response ignited. We got names through word of mouth, from parents, family members. They can’t ask directly. We put out feelers. It just kept growing,” Fran said.
They have shipped crockpots, shower curtains, and Christmas decorations, including small trees. Most packages head to Iraq or Afghanistan, and to date, more than 15,000 boxes have gone overseas.
Kites, Silly String and yellow rubber ducks have been used in resourceful ways. Toothbrushes are enlisted to clean weapons.
The two have it down to a science. Packages generally take several weeks to get. They have learned the hard way about items that shouldn’t be sent.
“A self-opening can pops open, and then destroys everything in the box,” Chip said, chuckling. And there was that theater-sized box of Milk Duds that melted into one giant caramel-chocolate ball.
“We depend on generous donations from the community. They rally around us,” Fran said.
The chapter has about 16 members, and many will come to help “at the drop of a hat,” Fran said.
“The whole chapter volunteers. On the way here, they will stop and pick up needed items, without expecting compensation. That’s how we are,” she said.
Di Scott, the co-chair of the chapter, has a son who has served four tours of duty.
“We just have a very supportive chapter. With all the national political turmoil going on, our chapter gets along with everybody. We know each other’s quirks. We won outstanding chapter in the state two years in a row,” Fran said.
The non-profit organization ESA, which also stands for Education, Service and Association, also supports St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Easter Seals. The ESA chapters in Illinois raise an average of $1.8 million a year for the Hope for Heroes program alone.
The Hope for Heroes program seeks donations in many forms — monetary, backpack supplies, gently used household items for Scott Air Force Base’s Airman’s Attack, handicapped equipment for wounded warriors and aging veterans, clipped coupons, and sponsors for fundraisers.
They support the Cell Phone for Soldiers program, too. They turn unwanted cell phones into millions of minutes for prepaid calling cards for U.S. troops stationed overseas.
This all-volunteer effort is year-round. They also provide counseling and financial support for military families in need. They initiate housing grants and upgrades for local wounded warriors and veterans.
They support Camp Hope in Farmington, Mo., which is dedicated to honoring the fallen by helping the wounded and was created by Gold Star parents William “Mike” and Galia White in 2010. ESA provides goods, food and helps out, at open houses and different functions.
“It’s so unique. It’s magical,” Chip said. “I love it down there, so peaceful.”
One retreat is an all-women float trip — no men allowed.
“You can sit around the campfire, sit back and listen. You see the healing begin. It’s unbelievable when they start talking. It saves lives,” Chip said.
The ESA chapter participates in local veterans and military appreciation events and parades.
“There is no paid staff. We pay for our own travel, meals,” Chip said.
They visit VA hospitals and retirement homes. A favorite stop is the VA Hospital in Marion, Ill., where they take Christmas stockings.
“The John Cochran VA Hospital in St. Louis and Jefferson Barracks get a lot of support. Marion is rural and doesn’t get as much attention,” Fran said. “We want them to know we care. The trip is well worth it to see these guys and to say, ‘Thank you for your service.’ ”
They receive emails of thanks and requests. They give out phone cards at airports.
“It’s nice to be able to meet the people. You get to know people as individuals,” Fran said.
They help with fundraisers, like trivia nights, glow bingo, and sock drives.
The Shaffers’ walk-out basement in O’Fallon has become an operations center to make the lives of military personnel brighter.
Storage tubs on shelves contain health and comfort supplies they put in backpacks — toiletries, snacks, items for down time, things for the flight home.
Shrink-wrapped baskets, boxes stacked ready to be mailed, and stars-and-stripes décor have overtaken the space.
The chapter and other volunteers will form an assembly line, and stuff 50 to 200 backpacks. Church groups, Scott AFB helpers, O’Fallon ROTC participants and others provide invaluable help.
Showing their support comes naturally. Chip is retired Navy and a Desert Storm veteran. Fran worked for the government, 31 years at USDA. Now retired from full-time occupations, they work part-time — Chip at Home Depot and Fran at the Scrapbook Factory in O’Fallon.
“I know what it’s like to not have things it would be nice to have,” Chip said.
If a soldier is wounded, they get a plastic garbage bag to put their personal effects in, so that’s when the backpack idea took root.
“Sometimes, their trips’ home are four to five days, with layovers and flights, just to get to home base,” he said.
A phone card helps them call loved ones and tell them they are still alive, Chip said.
They also include a personal letter in each backpack. “It’s signed, so they know it’s from us,” Chip said.
Their efforts hit home when their son, Chas Shaffer, was injured from a hand-thrown IED (improvised explosive device). He had joined the Army in 2007, becoming the third generation to serve, was sent to Iraq, and injured in September 2008. His leg was amputated.
When he arrived at Walter Reed Hospital, he had one of those donated backpacks, Chip said.
Chas now lives in an ADA-compliant home in O’Fallon, and uses a wheelchair, prosthetic, and a Segway.
“He has a great attitude and a wonderful sense of humor. He goes all over,” Fran said.
Because they have first-hand knowledge of what a wounded warrior goes through, that has made their commitment even stronger.
The Shaffers are now gearing up for the spring, and will find a way to meet soldiers’ needs.
“We have been involved for 10 years, but we’re not done,” she said.
“It’s been a real miraculous journey,” Chip said.
“There’s some really great people out there,” Fran said.
Q: Do you have words to live by?
A: We don’t lie, we don’t cheat, we don’t steal and will not have it done to us.
Q: Whom do you most admire?
A: Anyone who has ever put on a uniform, may it be military, police or firemen in providing service to our fellow mankind.
Q: If you could spend time with a famous person, past or present, whom would it be?
A: Teddy Roosevelt, a volunteer. He served with the Rough Riders in Cuba. He had a humble soul yet was not afraid to take the lead, and lead he did. He worried about his troops and felt the loss when one fell in battle.
Q: What is the last book that you read?
A: “Ghost Ship” by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown.
Q: What do you do for fun and relaxation?
A: Work with Disabled Veterans at Camp Hope (Chris Neal Farm) in Farmington, Mo.
Q: What is the usual state of your desktop?
A: Don’t move anything, or I won’t find it.
Q: What did you want to do career wise when you were growing up?
A: Who wants to grow up? All I wanted to be growing up was to strive to be was the best I could be in anything that I took on.
Q: What do you think is your most outstanding characteristic?
A: Patience — no way! Following through on goals set and exceeding them is a demand that is self imposed. Lead, follow, or get out of my way.
Q: What irritates you most?
A: The “ME” folks, the ones who think that everyone owes them without them doing anything.
Q: What type of music do you listen to?
A: Movie soundtracks, country, rock-n-roll and even Lady Gaga.
Q: What do you like most about your job?
A: As an unpaid volunteer, at times I see the success of what we strive for, then we exceed it. To see a wounded warrior, a disabled veteran, standing tall — if they can — living their lives to the fullest. They never ask, “What’s in it for me?”.
Q: If you were independently wealthy, what would you be doing?
A: Keep doing what I am doing now, just put that wealth back into providing more support and assistance. I want our troops overseas to know that they are not forgotten and our disabled veterans know they are not forgotten.
Q: When they make a movie of your life, who would play you?
A: There is only one of me. Guess I would have stand tall and play myself.
Q: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what would you have with you?
A: A lot of books, a fishing pole and way to leave my mark on my island, so if anyone ever found it, they would know who was there.
Chip Shaffer: 618-567-5315 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Hope for Heroes: hope-for-heroes.org