‘Operation Birthday Party’ to help military families

Christina Stavale

Anne Marie Mann and her daughter Mary Ellen hold items they collected for Make a Difference Day. The Manns are collecting donations for a birthday party they will hold Oct. 28 for families of soldiers who are serving in the military. SEAN DAUGHERTY | DAI

Credit: Steve Schirra

When Shannon Behling’s husband was deployed to Iraq for 18 months, she had to adjust to a new lwifestyle.

Now, two years later, she is helping to make a difference in the lives of other people going through the same thing.

Alongside Anne Marie Mann, Behling is organizing a project called “Operation Birthday Party” for children in Northeast Ohio with family deployed in Iraq. The two women are collecting donations of cake mix, frosting, party favors and other such items.

They will be putting together birthday party packages in decorated boxes for families with deployed members, and sending them out on each child’s birthday.

They will also be hosting a birthday celebration Oct. 28, national Make A Difference Day, for these children who may not have been able to have a birthday party otherwise.

“It is a great hardship on families to have their main provider deployed,” Mann said. “They have to decide what they can and cannot afford. A lot of times, that’s not birthday parties.”

The women are aiming to help about 500 families with deployed or recently-returned family members. Behling said she thinks this is a great way to bind families together who are going through the same thing.

“When my husband was deployed, the hardest part was not having my best friend,” she said. “I had to become more independent and explain what went on to the kids.”

Behling said it made things easier when she and her two young children attended events and meetings with other families with deployed providers. Such events included family readiness groups, military workouts and craft nights.

She thinks this party will be especially successful in helping families with new soldiers.

“It will be a great tool to help them meet others going through the same thing and find what is out there for them,” she said.

Behling said the community has always been responsive to helping those with deployed families. When her husband was away, she said the community offered an “outpouring of support” for her and her family.

Mann agreed. So far, the community response to this project has been incredible. The Akron Community Foundation, for example, has provided the project with a $700 grant.

Freshman English major Elizabeth Thompson said she would definitely be interested in helping with the party.

“It is a unique idea, and I think it’s a great cause,” she said.

Operation Birthday Party is just one of millions of community service projects taking place on Make a Difference Day, according to www.usaweekend.com/diffday. By looking around your community, you can find other ways to help families with deployed providers.

Behling said the most important thing to do if you know someone who has a family member is to “always ask if there’s anything to do.”

“It feels like it’s a lifetime (when they’re away),” she said. “Let them talk if they need to.”

Contact features correspondent Christina Stavale at [email protected].