By Dianna Troyer
The spirit of Christmas giving never quits at Ray and Cheri Archibald’s home in Oakley. As directors of the non-profit Project Rudolph, the Archibalds maintain a year-round Santa’s workshop for soldiers next to their home.
The workshop is a donated semi-truck trailer brimming with boxes of candy and plastic bins filled with colorful flat ornaments and hand-written letters that are sent to thousands of soldiers worldwide for Christmas.
“We never know what donations we’ll find in our mailbox or at our doorstep all year long,” says Cheri. “We’ve had gifts from all 50 states and 14 foreign countries. After Project Rudolph started, we outgrew our house and a storage shed, so we’re grateful Handy Trucking donated the trailer.”
The Archibalds are unpaid volunteers and fit Project Rudolph in between their part-time jobs. Ray, 63, retired from a local phone company and drives truck during harvests or helps with home remodeling. Cheri, 62, teaches piano, works at a bookstore, and is a substitute teacher.
Since Project Rudolph was launched in 2006, the Archibalds and hundreds of volunteers from throughout Minidoka and Cassia counties have shipped more than 50,000 gift bags. Each hand-decorated paper lunch bag is packed with a flat ornament, a candy cane, a copy of the poem A Soldier’s Christmas, and handwritten letters from a child, a youth, and an adult. The bags have been sent to soldiers in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Korea. Last year, 8,400 gift bags were mailed.
“Soldiers have said they like our gift bags because they’re homemade and individualized,” says Cheri. “We try to ship to those who are sometimes forgotten, like small forward operating bases overseas and the mortuary unit in Dover, Delaware.”
Ray says the project has touched lives in unforeseen ways. “The things that have happened because of this seem to be more than coincidence, as if the Lord’s hand was blessing it,” says Ray. “It’s literally been a life-saver for some people.”
One year, they received a shipment of Beanie Babies. “We couldn’t use them because they were too bulky, so we found a chaplain in Iraq and shipped them to him,” says Cheri. “He distributed them to soldiers, who in turn gave them to the kids they met.”
One day, a little boy tugged on a soldier’s sleeve and told him not to go down a certain street because he had seen a bomb planted there. The soldier asked the boy why he was telling him this. “From the inside his shirt, the boy pulled out a Beanie Baby,” says Ray. “How many lives were saved because of that?”
Soldiers are not the only benefactors. “One woman thanked us for saving her life,” says Cheri. “She told us she was in her 40s, homebound from being disabled, and felt worthless. Writing letters helped her have a sense of purpose and hope.”
The Archibalds are continuing the project their daughter Tawny and son Ian started to ensure soldiers would know someone cares about them during the holidays. Tawny and her husband, Joseph, who is an Army flight medic, were stationed in Landstuhl, Germany.
“It was their first year overseas, and they couldn’t come home for Christmas,” says Cheri. “She realized other soldiers were away from home for the first time, too, and decided to make some gift bags for them. She asked her brother to help her as his Eagle Scout project.”
Ian and his parents organized volunteers for six weeks and made 1,500 gift bags that were distributed to soldiers traveling through Ramstein Air Force Base and to patients at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.
“It was intense getting it all organized,” recalls Cheri. “When we were done, we were relieved and thought that was the end of it.”
The Archibalds resumed their daily routine, until an unforgettable letter arrived. “A soldier wrote and said he hoped we had time to do it again because that was all he got for Christmas,” says Ray. “How could we quit?”
Meanwhile, Project Rudolph began to take on a life of its own by word-of-mouth. “People kept sending donations to pay for shipping,” says Cheri. “Last year, it cost about $4,500 to send 8,400 bags. Teachers from throughout the United States kept sending us letters their students had written.”
Ray, a woodworker hobbyist, had an article written in a scroll saw magazine asking for handmade ornaments. Readers have been fulfilling his wishes ever since. Cheri says they need sturdy flat ornaments that will survive shipping. Donors can write Project Rudolph on them but should not write a year on them.
“We’re always short on letters from adults, too,” she says.
To pack the bags, volunteers meet at Burley Junior High School before Thanksgiving.
“We have about 300 people from all walks of life and civic organizations who help out,” says Cheri. “We’ve even had people who have worked off their community service hours.”
Ray estimates they fill about 4,400 bags in three hours. “It’s like trick-or-treat, where the items are at stations, so people get a bag and walk along to have it filled.” One station has pre-bagged candy while others have ornaments and letters.
Cheri says she hopes a committee will eventually form to run Project Rudolph because it has grown so large. Tawny, whose husband is stationed in Korea, helps with donations as much as possible from her home in Texas.
“We’ll keep doing it as long as we can,” says Cheri. “Unit leaders tell us the bags boost morale. The thank you letters we receive from soldiers keep us going.”