Aric Almirola and David Ragan Lend A Hand for Military FamiliesBy Mary Jo Buchanan
NASCAR Cup competitors Aric Almirola and David Ragan joined together to lend their hands in assembling comfort kits for children whose family members were being deployed through the various branches of the military.
The event “With You All the Way”, hosted by Pocono Raceway, was sponsored by NASCAR, The NASCAR Foundation, the USO, Comfort Crew for Military Kids, and the Trevor Romain Company.
“It means a lot to their families and those that wish their loved ones were at home with them,” David Ragan, driver of the No. 32 Taco Bell Ford, said as he packed the comfort kits. “To send a little care package that says, ‘Hey, we’re with you and thinking about you and supporting you’ goes a long way.”
“It’s great the NASCAR community gets involved at events like this,” Ragan continued. “It means a lot because they are certainly sacrificing a lot.”
“It’s great to get the fans, the drivers and Miss Sprint Cup involved too,” Ragan said. “It’s the least we can do to say thank you to the military and their families.”
Ragan shared that he could definitely relate as he has had many family members who have served in the military over the years.
“I’ve had a lot of family members in service, some in the Air Force and some in the Army,” Ragan said. “My father was a little too young to go to Vietnam but I had a lot of uncles involved.”
“So I know that it is important to let the military families know we are thinking about them.”
“Everyone’s enjoying doing this and it puts things in perspective,” Ragan said. “It makes you forget about all those small things that you think are trouble.”
Richard Petty driver Aric Almirola also participated in the comfort kit assembly line. And for the driver of the No. 43 Smithfield Ford supporting the military is also very personal.
“It definitely touches a personal spot for me growing up in a military family,” Almirola said. “My dad was in the Air Force and I was born on Eglin Air Force base.”
“It means a lot to me to be able to give back to these military families,” Almirola continued. “To do something as simple as pack up some boxes for kids and put a smile on their face means so much.”
One of Almirola’s major tasks was to assemble and dress the teddy bears, complete with flight caps, goggles and scarves.
“We had a good team going on with a group building these bears,” Almirola said. “Just looking at those bears; it makes me wonder whose hands they’re going to get in.”
“Hopefully it makes them happy when they get it,” Almirola continued. “It’s really a cool event and it makes me appreciative of our military and all who support our country.”
Like Ragan, Almirola acknowledged that events like this comfort kit assemblage really helped to put his racing life in perspective.
“It certainly puts a lot of perspective on life in general,” Almirola said. “Without the military and those that keep us free, we certainly wouldn’t be out here riding around on a race track.”
“I respect those people tremendously and we owe them a lot to what we get to do on a daily basis and for the protection they provide for us,” Almirola continued. “We’re building bears and giving them gifts because they deserve it.”
“It puts things into total perspective.”
This unique packing event came about due to the partnership between the NASCAR Foundation and the USO.
“The NASCAR Foundation approached us to be a part of their “American Salute” campaign this year and wanted to have a way to give back to military families,” Emily Branch, Account Manager for the USO, said. “So, we thought the “With You All the Way” program was a perfect fit and was a good way to get the drivers and the crews engaged.”
“We have three military families to support the event today and tomorrow they will have a VIP experience at the track,” Branch continued. “We also have some drivers, crew members and general volunteers from the industry.”
Branch acknowledged that the comfort kits are lifelines for many of the military children at all ages.
“These kits mean so much to the military children,” Branch said. “They give comfort and provide support.”
“There is a DVD in the kit and a journal, as well as a caregiver manual,” Branch continued. “The kits are designed by the Comfort Crew for Military Kids.”
“The Trevor Romain Company is also a partner and we have multiple kits for the deployed, for children of wounded service members, and kits for children of fallen soldiers.”
The creator of the comfort kits, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Comfort Crew for Military Kids Ronda Englander, was also on hand for the Pocono packing party.
“We designed all the elements to be a comprehensive set of resources to help kids with all aspects of deployment,” Englander said. “There is a journal and we feel strongly this is an important way to express their feelings.”
“It’s an opportunity to document what happens in their lives when their loved one is away,” Englander continued. “One family that received our resources shared that the father who was away cried when he read his daughter’s journal.”
“That’s how she knew she had gotten her daddy back because he got his feelings back.”
For Englander, as for the drivers who participated in this packing event, this is also a very personal event and passion.
“My dad served in Viet Nam so I was a military kid and know a little bit about the sacrifices military families make,” Englander said. “He did not survive his tour.”
“I was three at the time, Englander continued. “So, this most certainly is a labor of love and most important to me to make sure that this generation of military kids does not feel alone and that they have the support they need to overcome the challenges.”
“The theme of our deployment kit is “We are with you all the way” and that’s what we want military families to know.”
Englander also expressed her gratitude to the NASCAR community for their support of the effort.
“The NASCAR community is such a great fit for our work and for this type of event,” Englander said. “NASCAR fans understand that our military are the true rock stars.”
“We’re in awe of the drivers here but the NASCAR community is so supportive of the military community,” Englander continued. “It’s a great fit.”
The other partner in the USO Comfort kit project is one of the most important, the host Pocono Raceway.
“It’s all about the families and the kids,” Brandon Igdalsky, President and CEO of Pocono Raceway, said. “To be able to give back to the troops and to help for all they do is so worth it.”
“Of everything in these boxes, the one thing that stands out to me are the teddy bears,” Igdalsky continued. “I know they would be most meaningful to my children.”
“To see these kids here having fun and helping out makes it all worthwhile.