Groups' Monkeys Carry Encouragement to Troops

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 19, 2007 - About 1,000 sock monkeys are preparing to deploy to the Middle East with the mission of reminding servicemembers that the American public still supports them.

"I feel that sometimes our soldiers kind of get forgotten," Beth VanSickle, the founder of Sock Monkey Ministries, said. "We're just trying to let everyone know, we need to kind of forget about the political and just remember that our soldiers are still there."

Each monkey, created from socks that are stuffed and hand sewn by one of more than 1,500 volunteers, also carries with it the thoughts and prayers of its creator in the form a small foam heart, VanSickle said.

To help her get the monkeys ready for "Operation Monkey Drop," the effort to send the monkeys to the troops, she enlisted the help of 322 fourth- and fifth-grade students from Chelsea Intermediate School in Chelsea, Ala., who stuffed 425 monkeys in one afternoon.

"That's about 800 pounds of stuffing," VanSickle said. She added that the students held a contest to see who could bring in the most "monkey making" supplies. The winning class got a pizza party.

In addition to stuffing the monkeys, the students completed more than 1,000 personal messages to accompany them, she said. The front of the message card explains the monkey's purpose and encourages servicemembers to pass it on to a child who could use a lift.

"We understand that the Iraqi people may not have a very good view of us," VanSickle said. "We're hoping with this little act of encouragement ... that it gives the (servicemembers) the opportunity to kind of befriend the (Iraqis)."

Fort Benning, Ga., has requested some monkeys to send to their soldiers for that very purpose, she said.

The organization, which has applied for nonprofit status, began in February 2005 in VanSickle's Sunday school class of first and second graders in Texas. She was looking for a way to teach them about service as well as maintain her participation in church activities while fighting with metastatic breast cancer.

The project, which she said helps keep her going, is now based in Alabama and has had a much greater impact than originally intended. VanSickle approaches community groups to help with the project.

"We try to go to those individuals that are in a situation where they don't feel like they're able to provide a service," VanSickle said. "So, by us going into the nursing homes or going to the hospitals to help people stuff monkeys, it kind of gives them a renewed sense of purpose as well."

VanSickle's group also reaches out to the families of fallen servicemembers, she said.

The "Fallen Hero" sock monkey has a U.S. flag embroidered on its chest and carries a special note for its recipient. Simply stated, it offers appreciation and gratitude for the family's sacrifice.

Nearly 4,800 sock monkeys have been created since 2005, far surpassing the original goal of 100. The monkeys have inspired hope in the lives of orphaned children, cancer patients, AIDS patients, homeless families, and anyone in need of encouragement as far away as Israel, or in their own backyard, VanSickle said.

They won't head off to the Middle East without a proper send off, though. Chelsea Intermediate School will hold its "Monkey March" on May 1, before shipping the monkeys out.

"We've invited the community leaders and we are going to march around the school to let everyone know that we support our troops and that we're not going to forget them," VanSickle said.

The students will also take the opportunity to present monkeys to several military family members who have been invited.

Those sock monkeys that are shipped overseas will get a lift from America Supports You home-front group Operation Homefront, which has offered to help with the shipping.

America Supports You is a Defense Department program connecting citizens and corporations with members of the military and their families at home and abroad.

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