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A well of care packages to troops is about to run dry

When Dorine Kenney learned that her son, Jacob, was going to Iraq, she looked for a way to take care of him even if she couldn’t keep him safe.

She started sending a box of goodies every week — chocolate chip cookies, beef jerky, AA batteries and macaroni and cheese deluxe, his favorite.

The shopping and packing kept her from thinking about the worst. When the worst happened on Nov. 14, 2003, eight months after he parachuted into northern Iraq with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, she sat in her apartment wanting to die. She couldn’t work. She couldn’t eat. The only thing she could think to do was send another box.

So she packed one up for his unit and mailed it, 11 days after a roadside bomb killed Pfc. Jacob Fletcher, a paratrooper and her only child. It went out on what would have been his 29th birthday.

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Every month since, Dorine Kenney has been sending care packages to Afghanistan and Iraq. This month she will send 285 13-inch cardboard cubes — a personal record. They go first to the troops who don’t get mail from home, then to forward operating bases in the remote reaches of the war zones that have no access to amenities as basic as toothpaste. Really, though, she’ll send a box to anyone in uniform who asks for one; more than 90% of requests for packages come from the troops themselves.

Now her funding is running out. Grant money from a Newport Beach philanthropist runs out next year and there is no new sponsor in the wings.

“It’s time to put the sirens on and figure out how we’re going to continue. Our troops have come to count on us,” Dorine says from her two-bedroom rental where she lives and runs Jacob’s Light Foundation, a military support group that grew from one mother’s unbearable grief.

“I don’t know how I survived after Jacob died,” she said, “and I really didn’t want to. I felt there would never be real joy in my life again.”

Dorine says this early one Sunday morning while marching into a Wal-Mart here on Long Island to pick up two flats of snacks and toiletries she had ordered. It’s freezing outside and Karen Carpenter is singing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

“Whoa!” she says, stopped cold by a tower of Ritz crackers for $1.99 a box. “That’s half what I’ve seen them for.”

She’s here so much, the clerks know her. The one on duty today happens to be named Doreen.

“Hi, Dorine. How are ya, hon?”

“Fine, Doreen, thanks. Those Ritz crackers are a bargain. I’ll take 600.”

“You got it, hon,” the clerk says, tallying up the latest order bound for American troops at war: 264 cans of ravioli; 570 boxes of Cheese Nips; 275 tins of Danish butter cookies; 36 cans of Velveeta cheese; 207 twin packs of deodorant; 1,008 pouches of tuna; the 600 boxes of crackers.

Dorine pays the bill: $4,036.54.

How all of this came to be is sort of a blur. There was that morning she came back from the gym, her hair still wet from the shower. She was fixing some eggs when a woman in uniform knocked at the door. “Oh no,” she thought, “my Jacob has been hurt.” Then a voice in her head said, “They don’t come to the door when they’re hurt.”

Dorine’s mother dropped everything and flew in from Florida. All Dorine would eat were cookies. The laundromat was about the only place she found solace, watching the clothes tumble around. When she ran out of dirty laundry she washed the clean stuff.

One Sunday morning, as she sat staring at a dryer, a man asked if she was all right. His name was Mike Hoffmann. He drove a garbage truck for a living. She told him about losing Jacob in the war and the boxes she was sending overseas. He took her to Sam’s Club and she found some good deals, which he loaded in the back of his Dodge Ram pickup.

That was six years ago and ever since Hoffman has been carting stuff for her in that truck. He had a couple of uncles who served in Korea and Vietnam, and this makes him feel good.

By 8:45 a.m. today the truck is parked in front of the Wal-Mart. Hoffman, 45, is hoisting cases of ravioli into the back. Dorine, 55, watches, arms crossed against the cold. Her only jewelry is Jacob’s dog tags.

“The man has nev-ah told me no,” she says — she has a rich Long Island accent. “His truck is so beat up from us. I always say if I hit the lottery, first thing I’m doing is buying Mike a truck.”

Sending boxes is expensive — postage alone runs from $17 to $37 apiece depending on where in the war zone they are going. At first, Dorine, a holistic healer and teacher, paid for most of it out of her savings and donations made in Jacob’s memory. But soon she was struggling to keep up with the demand. Soldiers started sending requests from overseas, mostly on behalf of their buddies:

“Ma’am, one of the guys here doesn’t get any mail, and his job is to give out the mail. Could you send him something?”

She says that’s what Jacob used to do: “Ma, Carson never gets mail. Could you send him a box?”

She wasn’t about to say no to any of them. Soon the trunk of her Tiburon was packed with cereal, cookies and shampoo. Her savings were running low. Then a local TV station told her story; within an hour, a Long Island businessman donated a storage unit. Volunteers started stepping up: cops, detectives, firefighters, schoolchildren.

Dorine kept shopping. Alyse Spinner always says nobody can stretch a dollar like Dorine. Alyse is Dorine’s friend and the foundation’s secretary-treasurer. She and Dorine are the only paid staff at Jacob’s Light.

Raising Jacob alone those first couple of years — Dorine was 19 when he came along, and the marriage didn’t last — she learned to bargain-hunt. She clipped coupons and comparison-shopped even after she married Ray Kenney and things got easier. (They divorced after 23 years but remain good friends; he helped raise Jacob.)

“I know the prices, and when I see a good deal I go in for the kill,” Dorine says.

Around 2006, her work came to the attention of David Gelbaum, a Newport Beach venture capitalist and intensely private philanthropist who has donated hundreds of millions to groups supporting troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gelbaum gave Dorine two grants totaling $1.5 million, and Jacob’s Light took off. All told, she has sent 404,000 pounds of supplies to the forces abroad, each package designed to be shared among as many as 10 service members.

The grant money runs out after next year and Gelbaum, affected by green technology investments that have yet to pay off, has no plans to renew it. (His spokesperson did not return calls requesting an interview.)

“Mr. Gelbaum has been an angel to us and to the troops. He’s made it possible for us to rise up and make an impact,” Dorine says. “It’s time for us to find a new source.”

She is buzzing down the Wal-Mart aisle on the hunt for miniature packs of Q-tips. They only have the regular size. “I’ll go someplace else,” she decides.

The Christmas shipment is always a big one, and every inch of space counts. There will be candy cane wreaths, tins of butter cookies, salamis and hot mustard. That’s in addition to the socks, razors, deodorant, baby powder, writing tablets and more, all of it tightly packed in a brown box with a letter of thanks on top: “Dear Hero…"

The spare room of Dorine’s townhouse is filled with tokens of gratitude the troops send back. There are American flags flown in her honor from Black Hawk helicopters, handmade certificates of appreciation, a carved box with a 10th Mountain Division patch inside, a pocketbook made in Iraq. Eleven three-inch binders are stuffed with letters and photos of soldiers smiling and waving while chewing on her beef jerky.

One soldier wrote: “You are like a mom to us.” She cried and cried. Most of them don’t know she lost her son. She doesn’t like to say. “I don’t want them opening the box and thinking of a fallen brother.”

It’s 11:30 and Hoffmann’s silver pickup is parked behind a CVS in Deer Park, about 20 minutes from Dorine’s house. When Dorine finds a bargain, she snaps it up and stores it here in the CVS basement, which the Mavalia family (Alyse’s sister-in-law’s aunt) allows Dorine to use.

About 25 volunteers have shown up to help Dorine unload the Wal-Mart haul. They line up like a bucket brigade, passing cases of food down the stairs. Dorine is darting around the basement, counting and measuring.

“Where are the ladies’ razors?” She puts together special boxes for the women — 43 this time — with moisturizing lotions, shampoos and tampons (which in Dorine’s opinion, take up an unfair amount of space, so one time she attached a chocolate bar to each box.)

Another truck pulls up. The salamis are here. Dorine is overjoyed. Every Christmas she has “salami stress,” looking for the best deal on what she considers a holiday must. This year, about $5,000 worth was donated by the family that runs the Daniele cold-cuts company; the grandmother, Carolina, fled Yugoslavia during World War II and knew she was safe when she saw U.S. troops at an Italian train depot. She has not forgotten.

Dorine makes up a sample box to see if everything will fit. “Hallelujah,” she declares. It does.

In the next several days, she and a few of the women will gather over bagels at Alyse’s house and do the labels. The men will truck the supplies from the CVS basement to a local American Legion hall. Then 160 volunteers will pack the boxes, per Dorine’s instructions, every one containing a package of macaroni and cheese deluxe, for Jacob.

Pulling this off every month is a full-time job Dorine did not envision. If she had her way, Jacob would never have gone off to war. But there are some things a mother can’t control. He first tried to join the Army by filling out a card in a magazine. He was 8.

Dorine got a call from a recruiter.

“May I speak to Pvt. Jacob Fletcher, please?”

“Call back in 10 years,” she said, hanging up.

When he was little, she could always find him by following the string that led from their front door to his G.I. Joe parachute somewhere in a bush. He used to sneak up behind her and make explosion sounds.

Knee injuries kept him out of the military for a time, but after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he was hell-bent. “Ma,” he said. “I’m goin’. This will not happen to my country again.”

The last box she sent him had all the makings of a birthday party — a vacuum-sealed cake, candles, frosting and plastic plates — plus a salami. Her present was a little picture of her holding a picture of him in a frame that played a recording of her singing “Happy Birthday.”

It came back unopened after the bus he was on hit a bomb on the way back from Qatar. A box of her letters came back too. He had saved them all.

faye.fiore@latimes.com


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