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Spreading Christmas cheer to kids in need
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COUNTY — Early Saturday morning San Pedro Kiwanis members and volunteers from the Cochise County Sheriff assist team as well as the search and rescue team split up to bring cheer to families in Sierra Vista, Palominas, Huachuca City and Tombstone.

For the 35th year the San Pedro Kiwanis Club and its nonprofit Just Kids Inc. donated new clothes to children in need. Jody Klein, chairperson for the stocking stuffers program, said this year the group is serving about 215 families and 628 kids.

Over the 35 years they have served 25,000 kids. He added this is a decrease from last year but thinks the different methods kids are attending school has had an impact on the number of responses since the organization relies on the schools to distribute and collect the forms from the kids.

“I think it’s pretty remarkable we got 628 kids this year,” Klein said. “I’m guessing we’re right at or close to (being) self-supporting.”

Each child received new clothing that was donated by a community member or purchased with funds donated to Just Kids Inc. Stockings contain two pairs of pants, two shirts, a pair of shoes, socks and underwear.

“The schools would tell us for some of the kids these are the only new clothing they have all year and they wear them with confidence,” Klein said.

The group of volunteers delivered 166 packages to families in Palominas on Friday and delivered the rest Saturday morning.

The CCSO assist team and search and rescue team have been helping with the delivery of the packages for the past eight years.

“They give back. That’s where their passion is,” Sheriff Mark Dannels said. “It costs the citizens nothing for the volunteers.”

Dannels added this is just one way the sheriff’s department can serve the community, which is what they are supposed to do.

“This is helping the youth in need,” Dannels said. “When we show up in our uniform it’s a positive experience. They see us in a positive light.”

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Soldiers heading home for the holidays
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FORT HUACHUCA— The soldiers will be home for the holidays.

After several months of restrictions aimed at keeping them as safe as possible from the menace of COVID-19, hundreds of soldiers at Fort Huachuca climbed onto buses headed for Tucson International Airport Saturday morning to catch flights that would take them home for the holidays. Some of the soldiers were picked up at the installation by family members, officials at the post said.

Regardless of how they made their exit, the troops — Advanced Individual Training students — were finally going to connect with the loved ones they have not seen in a year or longer.

“I know the kids are excited,” said Brig. Gen. Tony Hale, the top soldier at Fort Huachuca, as he spoke to a handful of battalion commanders Friday morning at the Eifler Fitness Center on post.

Fort Huachuca spokeswoman Tanja Linton said normally soldiers are given some leave time right after basic training and before they are sent into AIT at their respective installations. But because of the pandemic, most were sent directly to Fort Huachuca or other posts right after basic training.

“We’re hearing from some of their parents on our Facebook page that they haven’t seen their soldier in almost a year, so the level of anticipation which is always high at Christmas is exponentially higher this Christmas,” Linton said. “The soldiers vary in age, but a lot of them are younger, so this may be their first experience being away from home.”

For the past several months, AIT soldiers have been restricted to the installation. The last few days, they were kept in a “bubble” inside Prosser Village on post in order to keep them as healthy as possible before going home, Linton said. Soldiers were screened by nurses Saturday morning just before they hopped on their buses to the airport or were retrieved by a family member or friend at Fort Huachuca.

“A number of things have been implemented here at Fort Huachuca by the 111th Military Intelligence Brigade,” Linton said Friday. “Prosser Village is primarily where our AIT soldiers live in their off-duty hours. We’ve asked that civilians not use the facilities here to kind of keep a safe bubble around them so that they don’t get COVID before they can go home.”

The reverse will occur when the soldiers return from holiday leave, said Linton and Lt. Col. Wendy Gray, commander of the Raymond W. Bliss Army Health Center.

Gray said AIT soldiers must do a health assessment five days prior to returning to Fort Huachuca from their leave. Col. Loren Traugutt, commander of the 111th Military Intelligence Brigade at the installation, sent letters to the families of each departing soldier informing them of the procedures that are expected and to “ensure that they’re (the families) partnered with his team to keep the soldiers safe,” Gray said.

In their assessment, soldiers will have to determine how they’ve been feeling while on leave and whether they’ve had contact with anyone who may have tested positive for the virus, among other questions.

“Once they come back if they’re showing symptoms, or if we have any suspicions, they’ll be set aside from the rest of the troops,” Gray said.

Gray said soldiers can be tested at the installation with results available within a couple of hours.

Hale, meanwhile, was pleased with what he saw Friday as he walked through the Eifler Fitness Center with Sgt. Maj. Jo Ventura informing him of the various checks each soldier would go through before leaving. Hale stopped at a couple of tables where soldiers would be asked on Saturday if they had the materials needed for their trip. One of those materials included a small card loaded with the phone numbers of drill sergeants, chain of command and medical personnel in case a soldier does not feel up to par during leave. A COVID-19 hotline number is on the card.

The general said he and Traugutt spoke weekly about the holiday leave procedures. Hale said the “well-oiled machine” that took place Saturday had been in the planning for about two months, even down to the large goody bags filled with treats that each soldier grabbed before getting on their buses so they could have something to snack on during the bus ride to the airport.

“This is a joyful time for the soldiers,” Hale said. “They get released from their drill sergeants and all the restrictions they’ve had here. They’re excited they get to go home and see family, for our country.

“It’s absolutely necessary to allow these kids to go on holiday block leave to see their families. What we ask our soldiers to do, specifically over the last nine months, has been pretty hard. We’ve restricted them in ways that the American public is not restricted because it’s our job to execute our mission for the nation.”