August 27, 2006 – Betty Vidal is always helping someone. She's opened her beauty salon of more than 30 years, Betty's Unisex, to young girls for meetings and assisted schools with internships for future cosmetologists. She's started a women's group in order for them to get together at least one night a month to socialize and has had a hand in countless other activities. Still, none gained as much momentum as her idea to adopt soldiers serving in war zones around the world.
In November 2004 Vidal founded Adopt-A-Solider, a group that consisted of her and a small cadre of men and women including Alda Anduze-Bell, whose son Caleb Anduze-Bell was stationed in the Middle East. Vidal learned from Alda (who learned from her son) that other soldiers from the Virgin Islands had not been sent letters or packages from home. Vidal's response was automatic.
"I said I'll adopt a solider," Vidal recalled.
She initially adopted nine soldiers, but two years later, her selfless act has burgeoned into a nonprofit organization that coordinates collecting and mailing donations of food items, toiletries and even letters and postcards — written by students from Good Hope, Country Day and Pearl B. Larsen schools — to more than 150 soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Soldiers stationed at other military posts worldwide have since been included in the program, Vidal said.
"I do this because each time one of our soldiers die, I suffer like it was one of my children," said Vidal, who has one daughter, Krystal.
To date, three soldiers with a V.I. connection have died in the Iraq War.
Vidal, who lost her husband, Jerry, three years ago knows something about losing someone dear. "I feel for their parents, and I pray each night for them to return home safe," she said.
Vidal said that the first shipment of packages on December 14, 2004, took nearly five hours to assemble. The project was time consuming because just about everything is placed in Ziploc bags, she said.
The 48 boxes that were eventually mailed off cost roughly $300 in postage. Since that time, the group has sent shipments each month, with the last set of boxes mailed off earlier this month at a cost of more than $1,100 for postage and handling.
Vidal said when asked that although the work is challenging, she's never thought of giving it up.
"It's challenging because everybody we meet says, 'I don't believe in the war. Why are you doing this when the government should be doing it?' Well, we do it to let the soldiers know that people love them here," Vidal said.
"I get letters from the soldiers saying how much they appreciate what we're doing and this keeps me going."
Excerpts from the letters, postcards, handwritten notes and e-mails, which Vidal keeps in 3-inch binders on display at her beauty salon, detail the soldiers' touching gratitude.
Ms. Vidal. You are a wonderful reflection of God's Love.
Just a few lines to say thank you for the packages you sent me. I must say that I really appreciated your good work. Also, I am looking forward to meet (sic) you in person. Have a wonderful Easter. Tuvia Blake.
Hi Betty. From everyone here I would just like to say THANK YOU for everything that Adopt-A-Soldier is doing. We look forward to receiving your packages. I know that the Lord will bless you all. Bill Rawlins.
Hi Betty. I 'm going to thank you every time I write and every time I see you. Gonzalo Marco.
Hi Betty. Thanks to you and all the Crucians who are supporting us in whatever way. We really appreciate it. Lorna Butler.
Dear Betty. This is Gary Moore of the Army National Guard, and I am stationed in the Middle East. This letter is to express my gratitude for the care package. My fellow soldiers and I enjoyed its contents very much.
Ms. Vidal. Thank you so much for your kindness and generosity. I really appreciate being adopted by your group. I feel honored that your group adopted me. Joe Sereno
Vidal said that she's made one request of the soldiers: that when they return home they visit one or all of the schools in which students corresponded with them.
In addition to Vidal and Anduze-Bell, the other founding members are Betty Cory, Richard Carroll, Karen Knox, Betty Nielsen and Margo Solis.
Vidal said she could not have done the work without that core group and area stores like Food Town and Plaza Extra, which have allowed members to set up tables at the store's front to collect donations of food and money.
The cash donations are primarily used for postage but also to purchase items that may not have been donated. Group members have often used their own money to keep the program going.
"I get a lot of letters from the soldiers thanking me for doing a good job, but it's not me alone, it's all of us helping," she said.
On February 9, 2006, Vidal appeared before the Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee and appealed for help from the territory. She said that the senators were all enthused about the program, but nearly seven months later no action has been taken.
Others in the community continue to help, however. Several businesses, such as Golden Hook Fishing Club, Pataladis Designs and Bellow's International, have donated money or food items, and Vidal and her group have this documented in those binders that she keeps at her store.
Every check stub, every casual note to remember to purchase an item for a package or to call someone for a donation, letters to government officials seeking assistance and commendation letters from community groups are all memorialized in plastic sheeting, tucked into the binders.
There are several pictures of the adopted soldiers — at work and at play. Vidal says she lives for those moments and because of that she must do all that she can to keep the program going.
On Sept. 2, Alpha Phi Alpha, during its Black and Gold Ball at Carambola Beach Resort, will present Vidal with her latest commendation as founder of the Adopt-A-Solider Program. And a few days later, on Sept. 11, she and her group will help commemorate the five-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks by collecting items near Styxx restaurant on the Christiansted boardwalk to be mailed to the soldiers.
The even will kick off at 6 p.m., and Vidal is hoping that residents come out and assist as they did in June at a fund-raiser at Golden Rail Café in Gallows Bay.
"People have been quite helpful and we are looking forward to doing all that we can to give our soldiers some creature comforts of home," Vidal said.
Soldiers have asked for West Indian hot sauce, tamarind balls, Brow soda, etc. "And we've sent it," Vial said.
Residents are asked to bring such items as cotton balls, baby wipes, all sizes of Ziploc bags, Q-tips, toilet paper, personal hygiene products, pop tarts, crackers, granola bars, Kool-aid packets, peanut brittle, chewing gum, laundry detergent, Vienna sausages, small boxes of cereal, small containers of mayonnaise, tuna fish, herb tea, microwave popcorn, crossword puzzles, magazines, novels, dry fruit packages, canned sardines, pre-packaged snacks, candy, lip balm, and Listerine strips. Vidal said that all items must be in their original packages.
To volunteer or to donate, call: (340) 773-4689; or write to Adopt-A-Soldier at P.O. Box 6616 Sunny Isle, St. Croix, VI 00823.
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