COLUMBIA — When Tracy Della Vecchia’s son, Derrick Jensen, joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 2001, she wanted to learn as much as she could about the Marines and what to expect as the parent of one. Unsure of where to turn, she searched the Internet for help and support.
Unfortunately, the Internet didn’t have much to offer. Della Vecchia reasoned she couldn’t be the only parent wondering how to deal with a child’s decision to enlist, so she took matters into her own hands.
In 2003, she createdMarineParents.com, which has become one of the most comprehensive and popular online resources for family and friends of Marines. The site features message boards, chat rooms and military legal advice as well as information on getting through boot camp, dealing with deployment and coping with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The site has become so well known that even Marines’ drill instructors have gotten involved. One part of the site is dedicated to answering questions for parents of new recruits. At times, “drill instructors and senior drill instructors go onto those Web sites and post information for those families,” Della Vecchia said. “Sometimes they even answer specific questions.”
She also said that although the drill instructors are not allowed to endorse MarineParents.com, they do mention it to the parents of new recruits as a potential resource for information and support.
Over 180,000 people visit the site each week, and the site’s message boards have over 75,000 registered members, Della Vecchia said. The site’s staff has expanded to include four full-time and two part-time employees, as well as more than 60 active volunteers who monitor message boards, research information and help coordinate projects.
There are a host of support communities, ranging from those that are unit-specific to those for Gold Star families — those who have had a Marine killed in action. The site also coordinates numerous service projects.
The largest of these is The Care Package Project, which started in 2003. MarineParents.com receives donated items like toothbrushes, dried fruit, socks, books, beef jerky and gum from around the country at its shipping center in Columbia at 2810 Lemone Industrial Blvd. About five or six times a year, volunteers pack the items into care packages which are sent to Marines around the world. The project has grown astronomically since it started. Although the Columbia shipping center is now in a spacious warehouse, things were a bit different in the early days.
“We’ve gone from 100 care packages to an average of 1,100,” Della Vecchia said. “When we started, we thought we were really cooking. But then the next one was 160. And then it was 300. We leveled out for a while when we hit 500 to 600, but now we’ve been doing the thousands.”
Joe and Joni Dafflitto have been MarineParents.com volunteers for almost three years. Now Joni is a message board moderator on the Web site, but the couple started out by helping with The Care Package Project.
“When we started, we were in Tracy’s barn. We did 500 to 600 packages, and it took us two days,” Joe Dafflitto said. “When my son, Anthony, joined the Marines, we were looking for something to answer a few questions. There’s no other support group like this.”
As of June 7, The Care Package Project has sent out about 15,000 care packages total since it began, which has cost around $130,000 in postage and shipping fees. Most of the items and money for postage comes from donations, drives and volunteer fundraisers around the country.
Della Vecchia said that about 2,000 people collect items for the project. “We have a group in New York state that’s collecting hand-held games for troops. We just did a fundraiser in Georgia that was a poker run. And there’s a woman in Oregon who has gotten all of her local TV stations and Wal-Marts to do a care package drive,” she said.
“This is the best project on the planet,” said Monica May, the project’s manager. She calls herself The Care Package Project’s biggest fan. “My son signed up as a Marine a little over a year ago. It was a surprise; I was not a happy camper. (The Web site) helped me get through boot camp with him. I found the care package section and decided to check it out,” she said.
“The people here are wonderful, and what we’re doing is such a cool thing,” she said. “I have Marines who send me thank you cards.”
The most recent packing day was June 7. Seventy volunteers from Columbia, St. Louis, and the surrounding area showed up to pack and ship about 800 packages. Because government policy now requires packages and mail for service members to have a specific name and address, MarineParents.com can only send packages to Marines whose families have provided that information. Della Vecchia said that currently, military rotation is in full swing, so the number of care packages shipped was down a bit because some Marines have not yet sent in their updated addresses.
Several Columbia churches, including Campus Lutheran and Columbia United Church of Christ, had members come volunteer for the first time.
Rose Ward from Campus Lutheran was one of the first-time volunteers.
“I know several Marines; my daughter-in-law’s brother was a Marine stationed in Iraq,” Ward said. “Whatever we as civilians can do to help the troops is great.”
Joe Dafflitto agreed. “We’re doing nothing compared to the guys and gals over there,” he said.
The next packing day is Aug. 23. For more information on The Care Package Project, visitthecarepackageproject.com or call the MarineParents.com office at 449-2003.