Holidays for Heroes: Red Cross, BHS send cards to vets

Both veterans and active duty service members across central and northern Minnesota receive cards from the Red Cross's Holidays foR Heroes program.

Brainerd High School students display the cards they made for the American Red Cross's Holiday for Heroes program, aiming at making sure veterans and military service members know the community's gratitude for their service. Submitted photo

It’s the time of year for beautifully wrapped packages to be delivered to family and friends, and thoughtfully written out Christmas cards to be sent to loved ones.

Not everyone, however, is fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of that holiday cheer each year. That’s where the Red Cross steps in.

The northern Minnesota branch of the Red Cross, headquartered in Duluth, does its best to make sure military personnel in its 17-county area aren’t forgotten each Christmas. The Holidays for Heroes program recruits community members to help make holiday cards that are then delivered to veterans and military service members, thanking them for their sacrifice and wishing them seasons greetings.

“Most chapters across the country don’t do this, but we think it’s really an important thing,” Dan Williams, executive director of the Red Cross in Duluth, said during a phone interview.

From about 2004-13, Williams said several Red Cross chapters would collect cards and have them sent to Maryland for free through a partnership with FedEx. Military units then had to ask to participate and receive cards.


In 2013, the Red Cross stopped funding the program but allowed local chapters to keep it going if they wanted.

“We got together with some of our volunteers and our board and decided that not only was it worth continuing to do, it was worth doing a lot more of,” Williams said, noting the only unit in northern Minnesota who previously received cards was the 148th Fighter Wing National Guard unit based in Duluth.

“So what we did then is we switched and instead of giving out loose individual cards, we bundle up cards with a little ribbon and a gift tag, and so each veteran or service member gets a bundle of 3-5 cards bundled together, more like a gift,” Williams added.

Groups from schools, churches and other organizations, along with families and individuals, write out 14,000 cards to be passed out to service members in central and northern Minnesota and western Wisconsin.

One such group is the student council at Brainerd High School. Adviser Susan Wigel inherited the project from past student council advisers and oversees students making hundreds of cards. This year, their total reached about 700, many of which were printed by Essentia Health, as the Red Cross does not have a budget to print them.

“We just thought it was such a great idea,” Wigel said, noting the project runs in conjunction with Veterans Day, with students making cards in November so they’re ready to be delivered before the holidays.

Others get involved in the activity as well, with kids from groups outside student council lending a hand.

“I enjoy just thanking military members for their service and for the sacrifices they give and just giving back to them by thanking them and doing as much as we can to recognize their service,” BHS senior and student council member Devin Emslander said.


“It’s really great what students come up with and how they express their appreciation,” Wigel added. “They’re thinking beyond themselves in this activity.”

And that’s one part of the Red Cross’s goal for Holiday for Heroes — get people thinking about others.

“It’s for people to thoughtfully take two or three or five or 10 minutes and think about their feelings about those that serve,” Williams said. “We often don’t take time to just sit down and formulate our thoughts about it. And a lot of people appreciate the service of others.”

By doing something tangible, like writing out holiday cards, Williams hopes people might be inspired to do even more meaningful works later one.

“It’s not just for the recipient,” he said. “It’s for the giver as well.”

The other, more obvious goal for the project is to reach those veterans and service members who are struggling or who might not receive anything else this Christmas.

“Ninety percent of those cards are going to go to people who have good resources, are healthy, they have a good support system, they’re doing fine,” Williams said. “... But like 10% of the cards are going to go to someone who’s having challenges — they’re having health challenges, or they’re dog just died, or they’re having mental health struggles or that kind of stuff. And so we know that that 10% are never going to raise their hands and say, ‘I wish the community would show how much they appreciate our service, right?’ And so by sending out these 14,000 cards is the only way we’re going to get them to the 1,400, say, that it really, really means a lot for.”

The cards will reach recipients in 13 different military units across the Duluth Red Cross chapter, three veterans affairs clinics, a veterans affairs retirement home, several county veteran service offices and various nursing homes. The chapter covers Roseau, Lake of the Woods, Beltrami, Clearwater, Mahnomen, Hubbard, Wadena, Cass, Crow Wing, Aitkin, Itasca, Koochiching, St. Louis, Carlton, Lake and Cook counties in Minnesota, along with Douglas County in western Wisconsin.


Some veterans in nursing homes will also receive care packages along with their cards, full of things like socks, shampoo, deodorant and candy, just so they have something to open on Christmas Day.

“Veterans are still veterans,” Williams said, “regardless of if they’re living in nursing homes or whether they’re 26 years old and robust people serving in the military.”

Anyone who wants to contribute cards to the Holidays for Heroes program can do so all year round, with any extras saved for the following year. The biggest need for cards, Williams said, is in September and October so they can be distributed to units who start drill in mid-November. If the cards aren’t delivered by then, the soldiers wouldn’t get them until January.

Those interested in participating can contact Williams at .

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at .

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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