Press Room

December 24, 2003 / South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Operation Brave Kids ensures toys for children of those serving in Iraq

By Kevin Smith  /  Staff Writer
Santa's most loyal helpers have always been parents, but with many parents spending the holidays overseas as members of the nation's military, some fresh hands are helping to put toys under South Florida Christmas trees.

Operation Brave Kids, organized to help the families of National Guard members and military reservists called to active duty, sent $50 Toys R Us gift certificates to more than 400 children this month. The certificates were funded by the Majic Children's Fund, a charity of oldies radio station WMXJ (102.7 FM).

"It's clearly the toughest time of the year for a soldier's family," said John Ghee, who started Operation Brave Kids last January. "When you add in that they're reserve soldiers, with no experience like this before, and for the kids it's Christmas time without mom or dad ... it's a very tough time."

Besides the $50 gift certificates, Operation Brave Kids also delivered $25 gift certificates to Publix grocery stores this month, with both of those contributions coming on top of the regular monthly gift certificates distributed. Since its inception the organization has sent a $25 gift certificate to every child with a Guard member or reservist parent away on active duty. Ghee said he focused on these families because reservists often leave lucrative jobs when called to active duty, with the families' monthly budgets suffering.

"A private first class in the reserves gets $1,275 a month, and might have been making $40,000 on the outside," said James Ruggiero, commandant of the Tamarac Detachment of the Marine Corps League. "Now they're only making $15,000 a year, and that puts a family in financial turmoil."

Ruggiero has raised thousands of dollars for Operation Brave Kids, securing $2,000 from the Margate City Commission in November and $10,000 during a private fund-raiser over the summer. Those dollars, and other funds collected, are going to the families $25 at a time, with the families able to request which retailer the gift certificates are from.

"It kept my baby in diapers, baby wipes and baby food every month, so I knew that was taken care of while I tried to stretch our income as far as it could go to pay bills," said Jacqueline Polston. "It doesn't sound like much, but it made a huge difference."

Polston and her son, 1-year-old Jackson, stayed in Lake Worth as her husband, Jeremy, left his job as an insurance agent in January to go to Iraq, where he was seriously wounded in June as a member of the Florida National Guard's 124th Infantry Division. Another member of the 124th, Sgt. Guy Aday, was called away from his home in West Palm Beach, a home which included his daughter Branwyn.

"That gift certificate [to Toys R Us] was a big plus," said Aday's wife, Allison Barba. "She's 18 months old, and I was thinking we didn't have to do a big Christmas, but we had that gift certificate and it went a long way."

Barba, who works night shifts as a technician at an emergency veterinary clinic, has been forced to cut back her hours since Aday left the country.

"Even $25 a month can make a significant difference. It's amazing," Barba said."

A Vietnam veteran turned Lighthouse Point accountant, Ghee formed Operation Brave Kids when he realized how a dark part of the nation's history was being repeated as soldiers went overseas. He left behind a wife and two children when he went to war decades ago, and his wife never told him of the hardships she encountered during his absence. Wives rarely do, he said.

"They're sweet and they're kind and they would never tell their husbands how tough things are back here. They just won't do it," Ghee said. "I didn't find out 'til I got back from Vietnam how hard things got while I was gone."

Just over 400 children entered the Christmas season with a parent overseas, Ghee said, though 825 children received gift certificates in October. Operation Brave Kids' contributions have been spread about equally among homes in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, touching a small handful of homes in Monroe County as well.

Financially, the organization is trying to refresh its coffers as the holidays fade, Ghee said. Some units did return home over the fall, but others have been activated recently, so some children will continue to live in temporary one-parent homes.

Rick Shaw, morning radio personality and president of the Majic Children's Fund, said he was proud of helping Operation Brave Kids, seeing the charity as focusing on the most innocent of those affected by the operations in the Middle East.

"These kids are the victims," Shaw said. "They're the ones paying the price when their moms and dads are away defending our right to celebrate Christmas, and they shouldn't be suffering like this. It was great to be able to play a role in this whole scenario."

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