While stationed in Washington State, Kellie Olivier flashed a family photo of her best friend Brittney Welborn to a serviceman friend in the U.S. Marine Corp. Despite never having met her, he recognized that Florida girl in the picture. She was the one who sent his unit goody bags on one of his tours of duty.
Three years ago, Welborn, a 21-year-old Keystone Heights student who attends Santa Fe College’s Watson Center, founded Helpful Hearts, a community organization that honors the sacrifices of our Armed Forces by sending cards, photographs, and care packages to troops stationed throughout the world.
“We need to get away from what we think of as a big deal and focus on something that actually is important,” said Welborn. “These people are seeing things that we can’t even imagine — they are getting shot at — and we need to give them back as much love and support as they show us.”
Helpful Hearts’s packages have traveled to 13 different countries, ranging from Cuba to Germany, Japan to Kuwait. Since its inception three years ago, Helpful Hearts has sent over 2,300 “goody bags” to give servicemen a little taste of home through gifts of homemade baked goods, snacks, hygiene items, and other daily comforts.
Hailing from a family deeply entrenched in the military, Welborn first became interested in sending military care packages when she was 18, after reconnecting with her older brother, with whom she had grown apart. As part of a high school assignment to write a letter to a serviceman, Welborn decided to bridge the distance between her and her older brother, who was 26 and stationed far away in Iraq.
“He told me it meant the world to him that I was trying to get to know him,” said Welborn. “It broke my heart to think that my brother might die for my freedom, and I hadn’t gotten to know him.”
Talking to her older brother helped Welborn understand the hardships of serving abroad and the sense of alienation servicemen often feel.
“When I first sent a package to my brother, he told me a lot of guys didn’t even receive packages from their families,” said Welborn. “I can’t imagine fighting for millions of people and feeling forgotten.”
Wanting to make sure servicemen felt remembered by civilians, Welborn started purchasing comfort items with her own money to send to troops overseas. What started as an individual effort became a community affair, uniting the Keystone Heights area with military from around the world.
“I have guys [servicemen and women] who write back saying they want to come to Keystone, because they’re impressed that a small community got together to support them,” said Welborn.
Local youth groups, churches, police, and fire rescue departments have all participated in Helpful Hearts events, and companies like Shepp Warehouse and the Lake House Restaurant have stepped up to support Helpful Heart’s efforts. Welborn herself even served as a guest teacher in a culinary arts class recently at a Keystone Heights High School, where the students produced over 3,500 cookies for Helpful Hearts bags.
“I’m trying to reach kids and teenagers to show that they can make a difference. There are so many things you can do. I always felt different than everyone else in high school, so I want to show that you can be different and make a difference,” Welborn said.
The Watson Center of Santa Fe College has also participated in promoting Helpful Hearts, by advertising the organization’s events on its marquee and placing collection boxes on campus. Welborn hopes to talk with Santa Fe President Jackson Sasser soon about hosting a huge Valentine’s Day event on campus this upcoming year.
Roughly every three months, Helpful Hearts hosts an event to gather materials and create the cards and packages sent to troops. These events are usually scheduled to coincide with holidays like Christmas, Valentine’s Day, or the Fourth of July. For the last Helpful Hearts meeting, Welborn’s father Paul closed his restaurant, The Lake House, for the night to host 100 volunteers. By the end of the night, they had created the 505 packages to send to Afghanistan on Oct. 17.
Currently applying for status as a state not-for-profit organization, Helpful Hearts continues to grow. Welborn has given speeches in Jacksonville and Orlando and has attended numerous yellow ribbon ceremonies across the state. She also recently spoke about Helpful Hearts with FL Governor hopeful Alex Sink.
“Everybody in this world knows someone in the military, so I hope Helpful Heart’s work goes everywhere. I have people who talk about taking Helpful Hearts to other places outside of Keystone Heights,” said Welborn. “Helpful Hearts isn’t just me. It’s for everyone.”
~ This press release was written by Allison Griner, Communication Specialist, College Relations
- Brittney Welborn, SF student, email FLhelpfulhearts@aol.com or 352-278-6167
- Julie Garrett, media relations, for assistance facilitating your story, 352-395-5430 (office) or 352-870-2924 (cell) or firstname.lastname@example.org