VERNAL — There wasn't a pointy ear to be found, but the folks sorting through mountains of goodies and packing gift boxes Tuesday night at the National Guard Armory in Vernal — and the countless donors who supplied them — were thrilled to serve as Santa's elves.
"We don't have to ask. They come to us," said Stephanie Stensgard, referring to the dozens of volunteers and donors.
Stensgard and others in the Uintah Basin began looking for a way to visibly show their support for the nation's military after the Aug. 5, 2011, death of Marine Sgt. Daniel David Gurr. The 21-year-old Vernal native was shot and killed while on foot patrol with his unit in Afghanistan's Helmand province.
"As a community, we lost one of our own," Stensgard said.
The group found their opportunity to help out when another local Marine, Lance Cpl. Logan Weaver, called home from Afghanistan in late 2011.
"He had mentioned that some of the guys he was with were getting no (care) packages," Stensgard said. "So we formed a group to send packages to the Marines ... while they were deployed, and it grew from there to other platoons."
Support America's Military — the group formed by Stensgard and Weaver's mother, Kris Weaver — soon joined forces with the Sgt. Daniel D. Gurr Foundation. So far, the two organizations have shipped more than 300 care packages to members of the armed forces deployed overseas, including one shipment so far to soldiers with the Utah National Guard's 624th Engineer Company.
"It seemed only natural that we would adopt our local Guard unit that was deploying," Stensgard said.
About 150 members of the 624th Engineers left Utah in June for training at Fort Bliss, Texas. They have since arrived in Afghanistan's Paktika province, where they'll remain for nine more months.
Marandy Massey, a family assistance specialist with the Utah National Guard whose husband is deployed with the 624th, said she knows her husband and other members of his unit look forward to receiving the boxes sent by Support America's Military and the Gurr Foundation.
"I know he's going to love seeing the candy, for sure, and I know that they all love the energy drinks," Massey said. "They've all been asking for those.
"The most important thing is, it's a package," she said. "They don't particularly care what's in it. The fact that someone cares enough to send something to them means a lot."
Most of the items in the boxes — from the candy to the caffeine and the baby wipes to the magazines — is donated by area residents and businesses, according to Stensgard. The rest is purchased with donated funds. Even the cost of shipping is covered by community fundraisers.
"Each box costs about $13.45 to ship, so it gets pretty costly," Stensgard said, adding that Uintah High School's wrestling team donated the proceeds from its Red and White Night to cover the shipping cost for the 44 Christmas care packages that were boxed up Tuesday night.
"It's just been overwhelming," said Red Jensen, whose son is in Afghanistan with the 624th.
"For somebody that has a child that's been deployed, it's very warming to know that there's this kind of support for them when they're out there," he said.