Mission activated at local church

by Jim Boyle

River of Life’s gymnasium-style sanctuary was transformed into an assembly line operation this past weekend at both of the congregation’s Sunday morning church services in Elk River.

More than 450 care packages were filled with everything from socks and note pads to snacks and worship music at the church. Those who filled the boxes also added personal items and letters or notes as well as their return addresses.

Mackenzie Kitzberger, a 5-year-old Zimmerman girl, picked through children’s cards to find the perfect one.

The packages are being sent to soldiers by name in Afghanistan, an opportunity members of the congregation leapt at, given the chance.

“I think there’s a high level of appreciation and a recognition of the sacrifices made to protect our freedoms,” said Ford Boone, a 33-year-old Otsego man who volunteers his time at the church to serve as the director of missions.

The effort was one component of River of Life’s multi-faceted approach to reaching service members and their families through a program it has dubbed Beyond the Front Lines.

The ideas behind it started flowing after a meeting between Boone and River of Life pastor, Dave Johnson. Boone has a sister and brother-in-law who have been deployed, so he quickly got jazzed up about the effort. So have many others. Boone reports it has been easy to get volunteers to help, and some families are also adopting deployed soldiers.

Those who choose to do that commit to connect once a month with a soldier.

River of Life has gotten the names of soldiers from the area, including Elk River, Monticello, Princeton and Albertville, by working through Operation Minnesota Nice.

Boone is also aware of the effort to formulate Elk River as a Beyond the Yellow Ribbon community, and said he was inspired while reading about it in the newspaper.

Damian Jenson of Elk River spoke to a woman about the care packages. One of them, he said, is going to a soldier in Afghanistan who graduated with his oldest son.

Beyond the Front Lines is all part of River of Life’s organized effort to reach out more to the community.
“If we were to go away tomorrow, would they grieve or even know we (River of Life members) were gone?” Johnson asked during an abbreviated service on Sunday.

Sunday was all about activating the mission. It resumed this past week with children and youth preparing Thanksgiving meals to be given out to families of service members.

A third leg of the effort is still being developed. It’s called a Wall of Honor, which aims to identify families of deployed soldiers and identifying needs River of Life members could fulfill.

As that aspect moves forward, there is a great deal of excitement over the care packages and what they will mean to the soldiers and their troops. The predictions range from the simple to complex.

Mackenzie Kitzberger, a 5-year-old Zimmerman girl who filled a care package with her father following behind her in the assembly line, was one of the hundreds to take part this past Sunday.

When asked what she thought the packages would mean to the soldiers, she said: “I think they’re going to smile.”

Katie Blackwell, Boone’s sister, and her husband, Steve, both of whom serve in the Army National Guard, were asked to speak at River of Life earlier this month to talk about the potential impact of care packages.

They spoke of how the care packages they received while deployed helped bring troops closer together and gave them a respite from long, difficult days. Katie said one care package in particular stood out, as it was themed a day at the beach. Her troop ended up having Hawaiian Days on Fridays, during which soldiers would don casual attire and sunglasses for a few hours and get away from the daily grind — if only in their mind.

The contents of each care package varied and was personalized.

She’s proud of her brother’s efforts and that of River of Life.

“It makes you feel a lot more pride when you wear the uniform,” she said.