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Operation Shoebox

Lined up just inside a community room at The Villages’ Lake Miona Recreation Center Monday, a group of millennials waited while watching seniors busy as Santa’s elves sorting sundries and packing boxes.

The group — members of the Beacon College Human Services-Psychology Organization — were raring to go.

And no wonder.

With only 69 more shopping days left until Christmas, time was a-wasting to ensure American troops serving overseas during the Yuletide wouldn’t be Scrooged.

Soon enough, their wait was over. Students marched in, secured their seats, and carried out their orders — sorting donations and crafting Christmas tree hangers from gift tags — as another volunteer platoon attached to Operation Shoebox, the Florida-based nonprofit that supports America’s troops with morale-boosting care packages.

“We thought it would be a great opportunity for us to give back to the soldiers who served our country,” said Cassandra Bergman, co-president of the group. “We were honored to play a part in this activity.”

This was the first service project this year for the Beacon College Human Services-Psychology Organization (BCHSPO), formed to do service projects, promote the professions and cultivate internship prospects, said Dr. Nicki Nance, an assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College, the first higher-education institution accredited to award bachelor’s degrees primarily to students how learn differently.

Operation Shoebox Crafters Nance said the group chose Operation Shoebox because the organization, founded in 2003 by military mom Mary Harper, who initially ran the operation out of her Belleview living room, now “has a lot of layers of service — fundraising, crafting, assembling, and mailing.”

In the ramp-up to Monday, BCHSPO students placed boxes around campus to collect donations. Staff, faculty and students donated sacks of items. Meanwhile, the group raised $63 — which defrayed additional items — through bake sale items students and faculty donated.

Meanwhile, Beacon faculty asked students to pen letters. In all, students drafted 60 letters to stuff inside Christmas stockings for service members.

At The Villages Monday, Nance led into volunteering 14 intrepid students: Caroline Chapin, Gracie Reed, Venus Beulah, Angelica Durso, Lindsey Flax, Cassandra Bergman, Kevin Moran, Jamie Neuman, Maja Petras, Brandon Wedderburn, Jonathan Gordon, Joseph DelReo, Avery Zupanc, and Cicely Sheffield and Dorothy (her service dog).

On two banquet tables, the group sorted and collated the donations they’d gathered.

Deodorant. Tissues. Cotton balls. Razors. Playing cards. Toiletry kits. Halls cough drops. Lifesavers.

And, yes, a container of Disney-branded cotton swaps adorned with characters from Frozen.

Goodies organized, students transitioned to the next task: stringing paper gift tags to use as Christmas tree hangers.

Things started slow, as students puzzled out the most effective way to string strands of green or red twine through the paper strips.

After a while, students slide into a groove as the soused out an assembly line — a Santa’s factory, if you will.

Flax manned a hole puncher like Rosie the Riveter, popping holes in paper strips adorned with holy, silver bells and the baby Jesus.

Operations Shoebox - Gift Tags Sheffield deftly snipped six-inch strands of red yarn.

“What are you doing with it when you’re done?” Nance asked.

“We’re just making piles,” Chapin, one of the group’s presidents, answered.

After a time, those piles, stacked like harvested hay, were passed them down the line to students to loop through the tags.

Besides Beacon students, the center was chock full of senior citizens donating their time to Operation Shoebox of The Villages, which launched in 2004. It’s typical for some 500 volunteers to show up to assemble up to 1,000 care packages daily.

While Beacon students worked, an elderly gent provided the soundtrack, tickling the ivories with Tin Pan Alley tunes.

With their first bag brimming with tree hangers, Chapin clapped, at both the accomplishment and the accompaniment, tapping on the tap to “Ain’t We Got Fun.”

“It felt great to be a part of something like this,” Chapin said, adding the group plans to contact the Operation Shoebox director for more opportunities to serve.

Indeed, for the Beacon College Human Services-Psychology Organization, it was at once a sincere thank you to the troops — and a holly, jolly good time.