When the time came for her class to vote on their yearly Christmas service project, they decided to give to Operation Gratitude, a California-based organization that provides more than 250,000 care packages annually to military service members and first responders.

Beth Hinton has experienced a whirlwind of emotions since her son left for Army boot camp in September. But her second grade students at Mark Twain Elementary have offered steadfast compassion and support, most recently through scores of donations for care packages to help service members and first responders.

“I think there's a certain amount of pride when you send your kid off to join the military,” Hinton said. “And then of course, the sadness of missing them, the worry.... just sharing that experience with them has helped me.”

When the time came for her class to vote on their yearly Christmas service project, they decided to give to Operation Gratitude, a California-based organization that provides more than 250,000 care packages annually to military service members and first responders. Hinton's students sent letters to her son and crafted cards for the packages. The classmates joined fellow second graders and fourth graders to collect 440 items in two weeks — surpassing their classroom goal of 170 items by 10. And they were delighted to receive a special thank you when Hinton's son returned home.

“They were really excited when they knew he was coming back for Christmas,” she said.

The students remembered why Hinton's son decided to serve, and the connection they forged over the months helped them decide that Operation Gratitude was their favorite Christmas service project.

“Mrs. Hinton asked him, 'why did you want to go the Army,' and he said, 'I wanted go to the Army because I wanted to help people and save people from harm,'” Lydia Munzlinger said.

Hinton watched a video about Operation Gratitude, which showed the students the impact their care packages would make.

“A lot of the deployed soldiers, they don't have the things that you guys have at home,” Hinton told her students. “Ands a lot of times, they're far, far away from home, and they can't just go to the grocery store and get a new toothbrush or get toothpaste and stuff like that.”

The students gathered necessities for each care package, along with small plush animals and cards expressing their thanks. Braylon Thomas said the donations included sewing kits and deodorant. The care packages also included personal care items like mints and toothbrushes, Delaina Meyer said, Raegan Murphy shared the message from her card: “I hope you're having a lot of fun there, and if you get hurt, I hope you feel better soon.”

Kenedi Neff said she hoped that the care packages would offer a welcome surprise when they arrived.

“I think their reaction would be 'Oh, this is good,'” she said. “Because if a button falls off, they can sew it back on, because the stuff we sent them has little sewing kits in it.”

The classmates said they were happy for the opportunity to say thank you and make a difference in the lives of people dedicated to keeping others safe, working together as a team and caring for others.

“It felt like there was a whole group of people together — to one single goal at a time,” Josie McClain said.

“It just makes happy, and I hope it makes everyone else happy,” Jillian Harvey said. Munzlinger expressed a similar sentiment.

“It feels good and feels like you're actually helping someone,” said. “It makes your heart feel happy and it makes the other person's heart feel happy.” Trinity Jackson shared why she felt helping service members and first responders was so important to her.

“They keep us safe, because they don't want us to get hurt,” she said. “They want us to stay alive.”

Reach reporter Trevor McDonald at trevor.mcdonald@courierpost.com