After her son Jacob was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2003, Dorine Kenney searched for a way to keep his spirit alive.
So she founded Jacob's Light Foundation, a volunteer group that has sent hundreds of thousands of kilograms of candy, socks, toiletries and other items to American troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Kenney, who lives in the Long Island community of Middle Island, New York, has received thousands of letters over the past several years from troops, thanking her for the "comfort items" she's sent that remind them of home.
"… Hi Dorine! I've received your latest shipment of boxes. . You always seem to have the stuff in the box I w as just thinking of! Man! I needed to get this and here it is! Your box! Of course, I can't use all the stuff myself so the soldiers I work with have just been blessed by JL as well…."
Dear Ms. Dorine: … Please share my gratitude with your support workers. Let them know they are responsible for helping our entire unit to adjust and adapt to being so far away from home by sending us a little piece of home in all your packages. … "
Dear Ms. Kenney: Thank you so much for your support… We've been sharing the goods with the soldiers who need stuff…. Even the Iraqi Army appreciates the support… After my soldiers go through their boxes, I have them put together [yet] another box to give to the Iraqis and their families. The Iraqi Army [troops] don't get support like we do. You should see the smiles on their faces!..."
Up to 160 Jacob's Light" volunteers help with packing and shipping the overseas-bound "care" packages every month
But the joy Kenney feels in this task is rooted in deepest sorrow. She takes a break from preparing for the next shipment to recall a moment in November 2003. She was making dinner for herself when a crisply dressed U.S. Army captain knocked on her door.
"I remember so clearly a voice in my head saying, 'Jacob's been hurt.' And then the other voice that spoke louder that said, 'They don't come to your door when they are hurt.' And I just collapsed," she recalls. "I couldn't stop screaming. I couldn't believe he was gone. It was just too big for words."
Eleven days later, on what would have been her son's 29th birthday, Kenney found herself posting a box of goodies to his surviving buddies in Iraq.
Kenney also told friends who wanted to contribute something in Jacob's name to send their own packages to troops in his honor. Some chose instead to give her the money to buy and send supplies. Soon afterwards, Jacob's Light Foundation was born.
Keeping Jacob's spirit alive
Dorine Kenney always wears her late son's "dog tag" military ID
Kenney believes the project bears her son's unmistakable stamp.
"He would always watch over the underdog," she says. "His nature was to make things better for people. [So that's why we] call it 'Jacob's Light Foundation.' because of the light of [his] spirit that lives on. The spirit never dies."
That spirit is felt in abundance on the first Tuesday of every month, as volunteers gather to pack, label and assemble hundreds of boxes of goods to be shipped overseas. In that sense, Kenney says, Jacob's Light has been as much a boon to the volunteers as it has been to the troops. "When they give," she explains, "they feel they are making a difference. And it opens their heart, and the feeling they get is their gift…."
Ninety percent of the requests for boxes come from troops looking out for their buddies. To Kenney, that is a measure of the mission's success. "For the troops to reach out, it … takes a lot," she says.
Kenney was especially moved by the story of one active-duty soldier whose job it was to give out mail and packages, but who never received any mail himself. "[So] I got in touch with people from one end of this country to the other to write him, and send boxes. He was so bombarded with boxes, he probably didn't know what to do with it all. He was probably [thinking], 'what the hell is this?'" she says with a laugh.
Putting the troops first
Kenney is clear that whatever "this" is, it's not about making a political statement, or about war or politics, or even patriotism; it's about the troops and compassion for human life.
"Our troops are often very young people. Some of them have lost direction in life. Some of them want to help the country. But they are suffering over there. They are suffering psychologically, physically, [and] emotionally."
She says if these people "can just feel… our heart touching them through a box, then… we've done our mission. That's what we set out to do."
Dorine Kenney says that as long as America is at war and there are troops who need a little boost of support from back home, the mission of Jacob's Light Foundation will continue.
She is certain her son, Jacob Samuel Fletcher, would want it that way.