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Needed: $25,000 for troops' yule gifts

OREM — The late summer tomato plants are withering, the lawns are covered with brown spots and the barbecue grills could use a good scrubbing.

Now that the nights are cool and the kids are heading back to school, there couldn't be a more ideal time, says Denise De Vynck, to start thinking about Christmas.

The countdown is on for the energetic Orem woman, who has only three months to raise $25,000 — enough to pay the postage for more than 2,500 holiday care packages, cards and letters for Utah troops serving in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan.

When the economy tanked last year, so did her cause, but De Vynck refuses to give up and lick her last envelope.

"I know how much these gifts and letters mean to these soldiers. Sometimes it's the only time they get mail all year," she says. "I've heard it again and again from so many guys: 'It's the first time I felt like somebody cared.'"

This is the third year that the Letters to Soldiers founder has coordinated a Christmas drive for Utah troops, who are grateful every December for those small parcels of chocolates, toiletries and handmade cards from back home.

Now De Vynck, who is disabled with a spinal cord injury and devotes her life to passing along letters sent to her Web site, letterstosoldiers.org, is hoping she can inspire a few thousand people to chip in and keep the cause rolling.

"I know these are hard times, but imagine sitting over in Iraq on Christmas Day," she says during a Free Lunch break from printing another batch of soldier letters sent to her Web site. "As a community, it's important to step up and show how grateful we are for what our troops do."

It wasn't until her former fiance was sent to Iraq that De Vynck realized how many soldiers felt forgotten after months in a dusty and dangerous foreign land.

Her boyfriend sent her an e-mail about how morale in his unit was low because so many men and women were homesick and hadn't received a single card or letter from home.

"I promised him I'd do my best to change that," says De Vynck, who asked everyone she knew to help her write letters and fill small Christmas stockings. She set up booths at festivals, rallied schools to start letter-writing campaigns and had such a tremendous response that she finally set up a Web site.

Today, anyone can go to letterstosoldiers.org to submit a donation or send an e-mail that will be passed along to a soldier's inbox. Besides boosting confidence, the campaign has led to other benefits, says De Vynck.

"I had a military chaplain tell me he was seeing a lot of soldiers with emotional and anger problems," she says, "and he wondered if a few letters on the Fourth of July might help cheer them up. So I sent him 300. He wrote to me later and said they made a huge difference."

De Vynck knows personally how war can traumatize a loved one. When her fiance returned home after 15 months, he was irate and violent, suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome. Ultimately, the couple called off their engagement, but they've remained friends.

"It broke my heart," says De Vynck quietly. "I'm hoping he can heal. Like a lot of soldiers, he's been through a lot of stress."

Now that her friend has shipped out for another tour in Iraq, "I feel a duty to make sure he doesn't feel alone," she says. "Every soldier over there deserves a full mailbox."

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