O’Fallon Township High School AFJROTC cadets aren’t just talking turkey this holiday season — they are bringing the feast to military families in need.
The OTHS Air Force Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps students have had their best year ever collecting over 3,000 items to donate to the Scott Air Force Base 932nd Airlift Wing Reserve Airman and Family Readiness Office for Thanksgiving holiday food baskets that were given out Saturday, Nov. 4.
“I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and we knew it would go well, but we had no idea it would be this successful — it’s the best we’ve ever had. The numbers were frighteningly successful,” OTHS Senior Aerospace Science instructor Col. Chris Moulton said.
Of the collected items, about 147 holiday food baskets were given out to “reserve members who are either struggling financially or low ranking with numerous children who could use a little bit of a leg up over the holidays,” Deb Teague, member of the A&FRO and O’Fallon resident.
According to Moulton, the group carries out similar projects throughout the year, like their spring donation drive for the St. Louis Fisher House or others in collaboration with other OTHS food drives.
“This is probably better than all the other ones we’ve done over the years combined in one fell swoop, so this is really remarkable,” he said.
Teague said, there was an abundance of some traditional Thanksgiving side dishes like sweet potatoes or pumpkin pie, which weren’t able to make full meal baskets, but will be shared with other SAFB personnel.
“We are extremely grateful for the cadets’ hard work,” Teague said.
Moulton said it all started with Cadet Ben August, OTHS senior.
“He came up with this idea for the senior class cadets — it was brilliant. And, he did it all by himself,” Moulton said.
Before coming to his group commanders for approval, August did the leg work first, Moulton said.
“He went to the base commissary, asked them about permission to do it, and he lined it all up setting up what days the drive would take place and then came back to us with a plan of action — and away they went,” Moulton said.
From there, August inspired his fellow seniors and corps cadets to construct information sheets on what items were needed and a schedule of who would man the donation drive table at the SAFB Commissary on Saturday, Oct. 28 and Sunday, Oct. 29 to drum up donations from commissary patrons for fellow families in need or who may have a family member deployed.
“It feels amazing. The sheer amount of items we collected surpassed my wildest expectations,” August said.
August, who just moved to O’Fallon this year, switching from a U.S. Navy ROTC program to OTHS’ JROTC, said his motivation came from “growing up in an Air Force family and seeing how much food drives like this helps people.”
“When I contacted Ms. (Joann) Whitehouse from SAFB Commissary, she told me that ‘hunger never takes a holiday,’ I knew we could pull this off,” he said.
But there were challenges, August said.
“The most challenging part was the logistical element from the people who supported this drive. We had to fill cars and trucks to count and sort the generosity. But it was all worth it afterward upon finishing our count and realizing just how much we had collected,” August said.
Janas said the 11 senior cadets collectively clocked nearly 30 hours between prepping for the drive, carrying it out and organizing items for the A&FR pick up.
August said he’s “honored” by his fellow cadets’ recognition on devising the idea about conducting the food drive at the commissary where they came into contact with about 1,000 patrons.
“However, I couldn’t have done it without the help of all the other cadets who helped at all stages from collecting to counting. The volunteers on Saturday and Sunday made this effort happen,” August said.
According to retired United States Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Bonnie Janas, the JROTC science aerospace instructor and the group’s adviser, “the level of initiative the students exhibited is amazing.”
“All I did was provide a garage,” she said.
Students used her garage to organize donations.
“It was definitely an interesting experience,” said OTHS senior and JROTC Cadet Col. Parker Anderson. “Being able to talk to a community that they are also giving back to — you know — it’s not like you’re asking for donations for a cause that isn’t directly affiliated with them, so being able to being able to see them help their own community and build it up is really awesome to witness.”
Anderson said it wasn’t until he was taking mental note of the three-car garage floor being covered end-to-end that it hit him.
“The realization hit standing there looking at all the bags of items in your garage — it was just mind-blowing,” Anderson said to Blake Janas.
Blake Janas added: “It definitely brightens my day knowing that while they may have otherwise had a tougher time having a great holiday with their family, now they’ll be able to have a nice, big meal with their family and really enjoy the holidays and not have to stress about things as much.”
“It brought like a really warm feeling inside of me just to see how many items that we collected because there are so many families that we helped,” said Cadet Capt. Ryan Mink, an OTHS senior. “And it didn’t really take that long to collect all those donations.”