Geena Cantalupo, a 2014 graduate of Calhoun High School, began her first tour of duty with the North Carolina Army National Guard in Kuwait in October, preventing her from spending the holidays with her family in Merrick. When her mother, Christine, asked 23-year-old Geena what she wanted for Christmas, she requested 127 letters and gift bags for each of the soldiers in her company.
“That’s her — that’s what Geena does,” Christine said with tears brimming in her eyes. “She worries about everybody else beside herself.”
To fulfill her daughter’s wishes, Christine turned to her co-workers and clients at Synergy Fitness Club, where she works as a trainer, to solicit supplies. Donation boxes were set up in each of the training areas for gym-goers to donate holiday-themed candy, trinkets, playing cards and magazines to the 230th Brigade Support Battalion.
The battalion comprises four platoons. Cantalupo, who started her military career in Towson University’s ROTC program, is the leader of the maintenance platoon. Her soldiers spend a typical day repairing humvees and weaponry, troubleshooting technical problems and fixing deficient equipment.
“Anything that rolls or has a motor we do maintenance on,” Cantalupo said in a WhatsApp call with the Herald Life. “A lot of the work is very monotonous, so anything to break the monotony — like the things in the care packages — gives us something fun to look forward to.”
Cantalupo has gotten to know her company members through basic training and daily 12-hour work shifts. Learning about their civilian lives, she said, she found some of them did not have families who could send them packages during their nine-month deployment.
“I came up with the idea to make my soldiers feel special, and make them feel like someone cares about them, and appreciates what they’re doing out here,” she said. “I’d like to try and give them the best holiday that we could out here in the middle of the desert.”
Accompanying each of the 127 gift bags is a personalized letter written by students from schools in Malverne, Valley Stream and Massapequa. Christine said the packages would be delivered to Kuwait by Christmas.
Christine invited the community to Luminez Salon in Merrick for a packing party on Dec. 9. There, students from Merrick Avenue Middle School and Kennedy High School filled out cards and packed gift bags for the women in Geena’s platoon. The bags included face masks, perfume, clear nail polish, body moisturizer and hair care products.
Christine trains Gina Zito, the co-owner of Luminez, at Synergy, and asked her to partner on the initiative in a way that would help Geena’s fellow female soldiers feel especially appreciated.
“We asked for donations from vendors that we do business with so these women [could] feel a little pretty during the holiday season,” Zito said. “We believe in not only our clientele, but our clientele’s children, and we’ll do whatever we can to help them.”
Although this is the first time Geena won’t be home for Christmas, Christine said that packing gifts for the troops has helped bridge the distance between them. “If I could do this for her, and make her happy, it makes me feel closer to her,” she said. “Some of those girls [at the packing party] don’t know me, but they know it’s for a good cause. They understand the people overseas are not with their families, and they want to help make the holiday [better] for them.”
Geena said that the care packages, though filled with simple gifts, would have a “big impact” on her troops. “It’s something to give us a little sense of ourselves,” she said, “and I think they’re going to be very excited.”