Jessica Olsen, 11, worked the shrink-wrap like a pro yesterday — wrapping groups of shoebox-sized packages together for an impending journey of thousands of miles. Some of the boxes...

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Jessica Olsen, 11, worked the shrink-wrap like a pro yesterday — wrapping groups of shoebox-sized packages together for an impending journey of thousands of miles.

Some of the boxes under her fingers may have held the handwritten notes and pictures she and her brothers, Mark and Luke, wrote to brighten the holidays of U.S. troops far from home this Christmas.

“We wanted to say thank you to them for keeping us safe,” Jessica said.

The gift boxes are part of “Operation Iraq: The Spirit of Christmas,” an all-volunteer effort based in Kirkland to get holiday packages to troops before Christmas.

After months of work collecting and packing donations, the group loaded the boxes onto waiting Oak Harbor Freight Lines trucks, which hauled them to an undisclosed military base. From there, the packages will be flown to Iraq, where they will be passed out to troops in time for Christmas.

Volunteers working out of a vacant Totem Lake Mall storefront load trucks yesterday with some 14,000 boxes of holiday cheer for troops serving in Iraq. The boxes are to be flown overseas by the military and distributed in time for Christmas.

“That’s the one request we made, that they be passed out by Christmas morning to those who had not received anything from home,” said Ruth Ann Young, who started the program out of her storefront last year.

The group put together about 6,000 gift boxes last year; this year, Young set a goal of 10,000. In the end, Operation Iraq’s cadre of about 400 volunteers had packaged 14,000 packages full of holiday cheer.

The group logged roughly 20,000 hours since late September in the effort to pack the boxes full of donated items — some things came from as far as the East Coast, others were walked through the doors by local residents.

Young started her first troop-gift campaign after her downtown Kirkland store, The Spirit of Christmas, sustained smoke damage from a neighboring fire. Unable to replace the damaged merchandise in time for the holiday, she decided to use her store space to package donated gifts to U.S. troops in Iraq. This year, a Totem Lake Mall storefront was converted into ground zero for the operation.

“The operation has taken on a life of its own,” Young said. “The generosity and camaraderie of everyone here — everyone has the same desire to see this succeed.”

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The boxes include toiletries such as eyedrops and lip balm; nonperishable snacks; CDs; paperbacks, handheld puzzles and brainteasers; holiday cards; and a thank-you message or picture from a child. Some of the puzzles and other items ultimately may end up in the hands of Iraqi children, said Cheri Brennan, a volunteer.

“Last year we heard back that some of the troops like having things to give to the kids over there,” Brennan said.

Volunteer coordinators Phyllis Settergren and Roxetta Groenen said there were times when the group ran out of donations to pack, but then someone would drop off new items, or a donation check would arrive. On such nights, the volunteers often went home with tears in their eyes, grateful for the generosity, Settergren said.

“After working so long, to see them actually be heading out the door, it feels wonderful,” Settergren said. “I think we’ve handled these boxes so many times, we should name them.”

Rachel Tuinstra: 206-515-5637 or