- Associated Press - Saturday, December 9, 2017

PADUCAH, Ky. (AP) - When Gayron Ferguson started what is now the Hugs Project of Western Kentucky, it was intended to be a nine-month effort to send monthly care packages to his son and two of his buddies in Iraq.

Ten years later, the project has ballooned to include thousands of military members of all branches serving overseas.

“At the end of nine months, we were going to quit,” Ferguson said. “Well, that was 10 1/2 years ago. We now send over 40,000 care packages to over 12,000 different men and women because we found so many that don’t have family, don’t have any other support.”

The Hugs Project is a nationwide, nonprofit organization begun in Oklahoma in 2004 to ensure that every American service member gets something to show that they are appreciated. The local chapter - the Hugs Project of Western Kentucky - is the largest of the 10 chapters in the national organization.

“I fell in love with it because it is 100-percent volunteer,” Ferguson said. “We generally have less than 3 percent of the money we take in that is used for expenses because we’ve got to buy ink and paper for the printer and things like that. But we don’t have salaries, we don’t have travel expenses - we don’t do any of that kind of stuff.”

Postage is one of the greater expenses the group faces. While the group mailed more than 100 packages Thursday, more than 50 had to stay behind because they lacked money for the postage.

“It takes $12.40 just to mail one box,” he said. “So you figure 500 boxes, which is what we’ll send for Christmas, that’s $6,200, just for the postage. Plus, you figure there’s between $25 and $35 worth of stuff that is in each box. Some of that has been donated to us, and some we have to go out and buy.”

Each box contains a variety of items, including crackers, candy, hot chocolate mix or chips, along with magazines, toiletries, cards and letters.

The name of the Hugs Project came from co-founder Karen Stark of Edmond, Oklahoma, who started making cooling wraps that go around the neck. They considered those to be “long-distance hugs” to their service members overseas. The cooling wraps are still included in the spring and summer packages.

Ferguson said that up to 120 volunteers come in to help his group with seasonal packing. The group sends 100 to 120 packages monthly, but more than 500 boxes are sent for Christmas.

Ferguson said the Hugs Project gets most of the service members’ names from chaplains and command officers overseas.

“If they see somebody who’s not getting any support, they’ll get us their information, and we’ll make sure they get a box every month until they come home,” he said.

“We’ve got some guys over there who have been there eight, nine tours who have never gotten a letter from home yet - until we find out. And when we find out, we make sure they get a box every single month.”

Ferguson talked about a soldier who said he was home from Afghanistan physically but not mentally. He told Ferguson in a letter that when he was having a tough time, he goes back to the cards and letters that he got from the Hugs Project and re-reads them and that helps him get through a bad day.

“You never know when you’re going to make a huge difference in somebody’s life,” Ferguson said. “That’s what it’s all about, is just making a positive difference. We have so many guys that don’t have any family and don’t have anybody that really cares about them. I just couldn’t let that pass. I had to do something about it.”

For information about the Hugs Project, visit the local group’s website at www.thehugsprojectofwky.com.

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