Soft-spoken Bailey Reese sits at the kitchen table of her home in Niceville, Fla. (pop. 11,684), diligently packing boxes with gum, candy, mints and puzzles—little things that say "Thank you" to U.S. soldiers in Iraq. On the outside of one box is a large heart and the words "We love our troops." Another heart reads "American Hero—Thank You."
Since kindergarten, Bailey has helped send more than 34,000 thank-you gift boxes to soldiers overseas through her Hero Hugs organization. "It's a lot of work," says Bailey, 12. "But I like doing it."
Bailey started her program in 2004 after Hurricane Ivan left extensive damage and knocked out utilities, including running water, in her hometown. She and her mother, Diana Reese, waited at a checkpoint while military servicemen handed out water and ice. Bailey overheard many of the people in line complaining to the soldiers about the wait, the inconvenience, the heat. She thought the people should be thanking the soldiers instead.
Consequently, Bailey asked her mom if she could send some gifts to servicemen and servicewomen in Iraq. She invited some of her neighborhood friends to help decorate and fill boxes with sweet tokens of gratitude. During the first six months, they shipped about 50 packages overseas, but as the project gained momentum, box packing moved out of the house and into local classrooms, where school kids were eager to pitch in.
"I wanted to be friends with Bailey the first time I saw her in school," says Angela Riseden, 12, of Crestview, Fla. With Angela's mother deployed in Iraq, she was excited about participating in Hero Hugs, which she describes as "very cool and awesome."
Soon after she started Hero Hugs, Bailey decided the troops needed a mascot. She made a bear, "Hero," dressed him in fatigues and sent him to Iraq. The troops loved Hero, who was photographed all over Iraq and eventually returned from his "tour of duty" sporting an Iraqi Freedom medal and an ankle bracelet made by an Iraqi woman. Bailey wrote a child's book about Hero, The Adventures of Hero, which she hopes to publish, she says, because it could comfort kids of soldiers and sailors deployed overseas.
On weekends, Bailey can be found at nearby stores giving away Support the Troops magnets and drumming up donations for her organization, which to date has raised more than $350,000. "I ask people if they would like to give a donation to help send packages to soldiers," she says. Many do—a weekend can net around $1,500, which buys a lot of gum, candy and trinkets.
Chief Master Sgt. Jerry L. Blankenship, 50, a U.S. Air Force reservist from St. Louis, has helped distribute Hero Hugs boxes in Iraq. "The expressions on those young soldiers faces made me realize just what this little girl does," Blankenship says. He was so impressed that he contacted Bailey and visited her family.
Bailey even got to meet President George W. Bush at the White House, where she was honored for her contribution to U.S. military morale. "And I got to meet Barney, too," she says, referring to the first family's Scottish terrier.
When balancing school, cheerleading and Hero Hugs became too demanding, Bailey didn't think twice—she quit cheerleading. She sometimes devotes 20 or more hours a week to Hero Hugs and is president of its board of directors, which is made up equally of kids and adults.
Bailey was the 2007 American Girl Real Girl of the Year, the 2006 Build-A-Bear Huggable Hero and the 2005 Angel Soft "Angels in Action" Grand Prize winner. In October, she received actor Paul Newman's Newman's Own Award for troop-based organizations. But the honors don't impress her.
"Taking care of our soldiers and saying thanks is something everyone should be doing," Bailey says. "It isn't something special. The soldiers are the ones who deserve recognition for all they sacrifice and give—not me."