There was a North Pole feel to Healdsburg on Wednesday night and it had naught to do with the nippy weather.
Scores of merry and grateful volunteers converged in a school gym to jam-pack almost 300 decorated boxes with comfort items — deluxe ones — bound for 500 soldiers who'll spend the holidays at an army base in southern Afghanistan.
The creating, collecting and packaging of the gifts was an impressive, community-wide effort directed by a head elf named Mary St. Clair. A hairdresser and creator of Healdsburg SOS, Supporting Our Soldiers, she got into the care-package business when her son, Dustin, was serving with the army in Iraq in 2006.
Small shipments to the soldier led his mom to enlist a little help from customers and friends, and send goodies to some of his buddies. Pretty soon, Mary St. Clair and a growing network of helpers in Healdsburg and beyond was shipping gift packages to entire companies of troops.
Wednesday evening's packing party at St. John's Catholic School was by far the largest. Though St. Clair's son is no longer in the military, her reputation as someone who can organize a gift mission to rival Santa brought a request from Fort Carson, Colorado, that she ship goodies to some of the 500 soldiers at the 4th Infantry Division headquarters in Kandahar.
St. Clair resolved that she and Sonoma County would send enough for them all. With the help of the local chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, businesses, service clubs, police and fire departments and others, she pulled it off.
The highlight of the packing party, attended by about 200 volunteers, was a Skype conversation with some of the soldiers in Afghanistan. The base commander, Lt. Col. Brad Wambeke and a dozen or so members of his staff shared in a conversation with Healdsburg from a conference room in the Kandahar region, where it was just before 8 a.m. Thursday.
Projected onto a screen on the gym stage, the soldiers took in the sight of the hundreds of freshly packaged cartons.
"A lot of the soldiers here, this is their first deployment," Wambeke told Healdsburg. "It means a lot."
Mary St. Clair had found out that Wednesday was Wambeke's birthday, so on top of everything else she and everyone else in the St. John's gym sang the officer "Happy Birthday."
Addressing the soldiers, St. Clair assured them that the cartons that soon will be coming their way are full of some pretty nice things.
Employees and far-flung customers of Healdsburg's Purls of Joy yarn shop knit a wool cap for every soldier, and dozens were left over. People from throughout the county donated new white socks to police stations — more socks than could be packed into the boxes.
Women in Alexander Valley made granola. Andy's Fruit Stand donated 125 pounds of dried fruit. School kids wrote the soldiers letters and drew them pictures.
Into the cartons went personal hygiene essentials for male and female soldiers, jerky, gum and lots of chocolate.
Veteran Tony Rambogna of Santa Rosa scanned the scene at the holiday workshop with a broad smile on his face.
"Hey, I didn't get this stuff for Christmas when I was in Vietnam," said Rambogna, 62. "So for the kids who are over there (in Afghanistan) now to get this is wonderful."