Holiday-card campaign for New York City growing

Tuesday, December 18, 2001

ST. LOUIS -- When Debbie Lavender decided to gather holiday cards to cheer up ordinary New Yorkers following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she thought she had a pretty good idea.

So did a lot of other people.

One small group's campaign to bring holiday greetings to New York City, called Hugs & Kisses, has ballooned over the past few weeks.

On Thursday, six people from the St. Louis area will fly to Connecticut. On Friday, joined by two Rhode Islanders driving to the city to lend a hand, they plan to distribute anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 holiday cards on the streets of Manhattan.

"I want to walk up Wall Street, Broadway," said Lavender. "Whether it's a brokerage firm, an electronic store, a deli, we want to walk in and say, 'We're from St. Louis, and here's a card for you."'

The physical therapist's inspiration for Hugs & Kisses came when she received an e-mail from a New York friend who wrote of the attacks that claimed about 3,000 lives at the World Trade Center. "We just stay angry so we can cope every day," the e-mail read.

She said she wanted to try to change that.

She knew about the blood drives and the monetary donations, but wanted to do something else to lift people's spirits.

The 45-year-old from Kirkwood, a St. Louis suburb, started encouraging people to make holiday cards -- for Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas -- even New Year's greetings.

"All of a sudden I realized what an emotional toll the World Trade Center attack had taken on New Yorkers. I could see the trauma in their everyday lives," she said.

Lavender pitched the idea as a volunteer project for a leadership program with Landmark Education, where she coaches other adults.

She and friend Nancy Quigle passed out fliers about the idea. Her employer, Pro Rehab of Florissant, and Schnucks Markets in the St. Louis area, offered to serve as a collection site.

By Monday, Schnucks had collected 3,000 to 4,000 cards. Lavender said she's gathered about another 1,200.

"We did it because it's the right thing to do," said Dee Wetzel, a Schnucks spokeswoman.

At a time when even the mail can seem threatening following the delivery of anthrax-laced letters, participants had to show identification when they dropped off the cards. No envelopes were allowed.

A laundry company donated bags to carry the cards, and Southwest Airlines will transport them. Lavender said she thinks the cards can't help but brighten the holidays in New York.

While all the cards are appreciated, she said those from children really warm her heart.

"This one's just held together by glitter glue," she noted of one child's creation, reading, "Please go on because your loved ones are watching over you."

Another child began his message with the thought Lavender hoped the project would convey from its beginning -- letting New Yorkers know they're not alone. He wrote simply, "We're here."

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