Credit: Bob Jamieson, Star-Gazette
Big Flats seventh-grader Sophie Kartzman dreams big. As a result, thousands in the military are left smiling while area youngsters are learning the joy of volunteering.
Last year, the 12-year-old led efforts locally to make 13,000 holiday cards for active military and veterans. On Thursday, she will renew the effort, under the name Dream Big Sophie and with a bigger goal, 15,000 cards.
The campaign starts with an event Thursday at Horseheads Intermediate School, where she attends school and gets plenty of help from staff and students. The launch will feature her friend from Bethany Manor, World War II veteran Casimir “Cas” Krolak, along with school and elected officials, including Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning and state Assemblyman Phil Palmesano, R-Corning.
“I feel like it can get really big, and if we just stopped last year after we got 13,000 cards, I would have honestly just kept thinking what would have happened if I hadn’t stopped,” Sophie said. “I also know how happy it makes the soldiers and the vets. Everyone really enjoys it, so I figure let’s keep doing it. Everyone loves it. It’s all good.”
The card drive features at least 10 events, from schools to service clubs, through Nov. 23 where youngsters and adults can make cards or sign donated ones. Some other events are still being planned. Meanwhile, four collection sites, including the Star-Gazette, have been set up for collection of cards by individuals or groups.
“They make cards. They write in cards. They find places where we can set up for people to make cards,” Sophie said of volunteers during an interview in her home. She said the cards all have a positive message and express gratitude. She said adults can sign their full name, but minors are allowed to sign only their first name.
Classmates helped her get a jump-start for this drive by making 361 cards. A batch of 1,033 cards made by students and a handful of local groups were dropped off Columbus Day weekend to the Elmira Heights VFW for distribution to an Army base in Kosovo.
Sophie's website, dreambigsophie.org, carries an example of a card made by a Horseheads Middle School student identified by his first name, Aaren. It reads: “If you are an American soldier and reading this, you are awesome. If you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or anything else and reading this, you are awesome. If you are white, black, green, purple, and reading this, you are awesome. If you are a man or woman fighting for America and reading this, you are awesome. My point is, you are awesome. You are only 1% of the American population. But you are the best percent. I want to thank you for being awesome and serving America. If you have family at home, I want to thank them for being awesome too. Hang in there, and stay awesome.”
The effort has grown exponentially since 2013, when Sophie and a friend made 50 cards each for the Holiday Mail for Heroes program for a local Red Cross chapter. Many awards recognized her last campaign, from the American Red Cross Spirit of Humanity Award to the George Bush Points of Light Daily Award.
The national Red Cross shifted responsibility for collecting, sorting and distributing cards for its Holiday Mail for Heroes program to local chapters this year, and, in turn, the area chapters are letting Sophie lead that effort.
“I’m starting to take this on by myself with a lot of help. The Red Cross still helps with connections,” Sophie said. “In the past, they sent cards for us, they counted the cards, they kept the cards safe.”
Now, she will keep the cards in a room in her house until they are ready for distribution. The Red Cross, meanwhile, has launched a new initiative through its local chapters, collecting comfort care packages for veterans and their families that consist of items for personal hygiene, from razors to toothpaste and shampoo.
Jay Bonafede, spokesperson for the American Red Cross Western and Central New York Region in Buffalo, called Sophie an “amazing young woman.”
“While we feel as though we will be giving our military members and their families something tangible that they need through our Holiday Heroes Comfort Kits and other similar Services to the Armed Forces programs, Sophie’s efforts will also help our military members feel supported this holiday season,” Bonafede said.
Sophie’s mother, Denise Kartzman, helps organize the drive, beginning in late September. Sophie said she works on cards during free periods at school.
Sophie said many of her friends and classmates are eager to help. A typical reply, she said: “When do you want us to start because we are free any time you need us.”
Sophie is trying to cultivate that attitude through her website, which encourages volunteering, especially among young people. It contains about a half-dozen videos that show visits by her, and others, to area schools and nursing homes.
Her father, David Kartzman, talked about his daughter’s efforts, her visits to the nursing facility at the Bath VA Medical Center and relationships she has developed with veterans, such as Casimir Krolak.
“It has really given us a nice picture of what kind of person she is going to be. She has never made this about herself. It has always been what is in it for the soldiers.”
He also talked about not knowing how his daughter would react after he took her to the Bath VA hospice, nursing facility and domicile for the first time last December.
“It is not an easy place to be if you are 11 or 12 years old, and on the ride home I didn’t know if it was was going to very emotional or very sad. She wanted to go back,” he said.
“She saw beyond what age had done to these people who were physical incapable, but emotionally very capable. She didn’t see them as people with a wheelchair or people with infirmities. She saw them as people,” he said.
“They served her country and made a difference in her life. She just loves going up there and being with them, hugging them and getting to know them,” he said. “I don’t know where that came from for an 11-year-old. To have that much philosophical insight is a gift. It is a gift of compassion and caring.”
Sophie said she had thought about becoming a lawyer, but now is rethinking other career paths. “Now, I have no idea. Is there a lawyer for volunteering? That would be perfect.”
Sophie's website: dreambigsophie.org
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