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
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
"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
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
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