- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 30, 2009

Operation Hug-A-Hero, a North Carolina organization seeking nonprofit status, is giving 233 Hug-A-Hero dolls to military families.

Hug-A-Hero provides “mommy” and “daddy” dolls to children of deployed soldiers. Military spouses Tricia Dyal and Nikki Darnell created the dolls and started Daddy Dolls Inc. in 2005 to fill a need in their own children’s lives when their husbands were deployed to Iraq.

“We wanted to find some way to make the separation easier for our sons and daughters while keeping their fathers close to their hearts and in their prayers,” Mrs. Dyal said. “The doll is created for the young ones who feel left behind and miss their deployed loved one.”

Shortly after forming Daddy Dolls Inc., Mrs. Dyal and Mrs. Darnell developed a fund financed through donations by individuals, organizations and companies. To make it easier to raise funds, Operation Hug-A-Hero was formed in August 2008. Operation Hug-A-Hero’s Director of Development Lisa Berg says the group is in the process of applying for nonprofit status.

The organization plans eventually to provide Hug-A-Hero dolls to every military child who wants one.

Hug-A-Hero screen-prints photos of soldiers onto soft, washable dolls using a process similar to reproducing photos on T-shirts. The dolls also are provided to children who have lost a parent in the line of duty.

“Easing the loneliness and anxiety of deployments for children of our soldiers, the Hug-A-Hero dolls are filling a void,” Mrs. Dyal said. “We are so proud to see Hug-A-Hero dolls touching so many lives all over the world.

“With both of our husbands being Marines and both having been deployed twice in less than two years, the absence of Daddy was beginning to take its toll on our own children as well as those of dear friends,” Mrs. Dyal said. “It has been our aspiration to give the Hug-A-Hero dolls to military children faced with the stresses of a deployment.”

“We’re so proud to see Hug-A-Hero dolls touching so many lives all over the world,” she said. “When people realize the numbers of children who are missing a father or mother due to military deployment, it truly pulls at their heartstrings to lend support. One woman from Massachusetts actually posted a sign in her gym for donations to Operation Hug-A-Hero and raised over $500.”

The organization has been able to help more than 3,000 children. However, because funds are limited, it requires that recipients have a recommendation by chaplains based on family need, Mrs. Berg says.

“Even more comforting to fathers and mothers who are deployed is ensuring that there is support and comfort provided to their families left behind, especially for the children who do not yet comprehend why the parent must be away,” Mrs. Berg said. “It’s truly inspiring to see people open their hearts to the children of our deployed service members.

“It’s so heartwarming to see people who don’t even have a connection to the military stepping forward and saying, ‘This is a small way that I can help the soldiers, by doing something for his or her child,’ ” Mrs. Berg added. “There is also a dentist in Louisiana that is reaching out to our cause by allowing his patients the option to donate at the time of their visit to his office. This dentist served in the Louisiana Army National Guard with two tours supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“Our proud military forces continue the long vigil of defending the United States from terrorism while bringing freedom and peace to other nations across the globe,” Mrs. Berg said. “Unfortunately, this worthy and honorable duty often comes at the sacrifice of time spent with family, and sometimes, even at the cost of American lives lost far from home.”

More information about Operation Hug-A-Hero can be found at www.operationhugahero.org. The Web site features testimonials and letters of thanks from families who have received a free doll. It also provides articles about coping with extended deployments, resources for families and information on how to volunteer or initiate a fundraising drive for Operation Hug-A-Hero.

Susan Oliver Nelson is a freelance writer living at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

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