Start a conversation with Leslie Halbower Barrett about the soldiers who fight in war zones across the globe and it won’t take long before she tears up. Or rubs away the goose-bumps on her arms.
Barrett is founder of Great Bend Military Moms, and because of her continuing support for soldiers she has been named grand marshal of this year’s Home for the Holidays Parade.
The 10th annual parade, sponsored by Sunflower Diversified Services, is set for 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 28. The parade route is Main Street from 19th to 12th and the theme is “A Soldier’s Christmas Wish.”
“I just cannot explain what the people serving our country mean to me,” Barrett said. “When I think of someone in a war zone who may feel forgotten, it just kills me.”
Sarah Krom, Sunflower community supports coordinator, noted that it is fitting that Barrett is grand marshal because of this year’s theme.
“Leslie was chosen because of her unwavering support of military personnel and the founding of the local Military Moms group,” Krom said. “She is a shining example of how one person can make a huge difference in many people’s lives.”
Barrett said she is humbled by this honor and wants to share it with the community that has supported Military Moms since 2003.
“We started 12 years ago when a friend’s son was in Iraq and my son, Brandon, was in South Korea with the U.S. Air Force,” Barrett recalled. “We said, ‘let’s get together and send them a care package.’ We ended up putting together 50 boxes.
“We thought it would be a one-time deal,” she added. “Little did we know …”
The first mailing was near Christmas that first year and six months later, Military Moms was at it again. Currently, there are at least two mass mailings a year; 12-by-12-by-5-and-a-half-inch boxes are packaged at the American Legion, which has been a partner with Military Moms for years.
“Word of mouth continues to spread,” Barrett said. “This is a true labor of love by many people.”
There is definitely labor involved. Barrett works 50 hours a week as a licensed, in-home childcare provider. This meant Military Moms took over her nights and weekends.
“I can remember being at Walmart at 2 o’clock in the morning with three cart-loads of stuff,” Barrett laughed. “But about six years ago, a Godsend named Ruth Behrens came along.
“Ruth is a coupon expert and an answer to a prayer,” Barrett commented. “She has saved us a ton of money and allowed others a little more time to sleep because she can shop during the daytime.”
While many local residents know about Military Moms, it also has extended its reach nationwide. For example, the Pentagon called Barrett, seeking a soldier she had helped.
“They wanted to reach him so he could share his personal story with congressional leaders,” Barrett said.
In another instance, People magazine notified Barrett that a Military Moms representative was asked to appear on The Royals Live Pregame Show a few years ago. She happily accepted the invitation.
“We must keep our soldiers in the forefront of our minds,” Barrett said. “Sunflower Diversified has graciously offered me this parade opportunity and I cannot tell you how much I appreciate it.
“Sunflower is a real gem,” she continued. “The staff works tirelessly to support people with disabilities and delays. It is non-profit and provides early intervention for the little ones, and many options for employment and independent living for adults.”
Barrett is eager to use the parade platform to remind the community that soldiers need support and appreciate it.
One letter-to-the editor from a U.S. Marine corporal summed it up, Barrett said. The letter reads, in part: “I also want to thank you, not just for the package but for the support. … It really means a lot to receive something from so many people in a community I’m not a part of.
“We kind of get tunnel vision out here after 13-hour days, seven days a week and forget the world back home still believes in us. Which is kind of funny because you all are the reason we are out here in the first place.”
This soldier received one of the more than 5,400 boxes that have been mailed out over the years. The most popular items include AA batteries, new and used CDs and DVDs, beef jerky, nuts, sunflower seeds and personal hygiene items.
“Military Moms will certainly accept these items, but we have learned it is more efficient to donate the money you would have spent,” Barrett commented. “We then can buy what we need and storage doesn’t become a problem.”
While Barrett has been overwhelmed by community support, her family has been instrumental in the group’s success. Her husband, Doug, and her parents, Don and Pat Halbower, have been by her side helping any way they can.
In addition to Brandon, 34, Barrett has two other children – Darah, 31, and Tyler, 23. “My family and many friends have been there to help me help soldiers,” Barrett said. “I simply couldn’t do it without them.”