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Jacob's Light packs final shipment for U.S. troops, ending 10 years of contributions

Dorine Kenney, founder of Jacob's Light Foundation, hugs

Dorine Kenney, founder of Jacob's Light Foundation, hugs Staff Sgt. John Nystrom on Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014, at the foundation's warehouse in Ronkonkoma. Nystrom, an Army medic who in 2003 tried to save her son, Spc. Jacob Samuel Fletcher, met Kenney for the first time as the organization, disbanding after 10 years because of funding shortages, assembled its last care packages to combat troops. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Dorine Kenney has sought meaning in the death of her son, Army Spc. Jacob Fletcher, by helping other combat soldiers since he was killed in the first months of America's 2003 invasion of Iraq.

But with donations drying up, Kenney is disbanding the Jacob's Light Foundation she started 10 years ago in her son's name -- which has since sent more than 600,000 pounds of care packages to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Today would have been Jacob's 40th birthday," said Kenney, of Middle Island, her voice breaking. "It's very sad to see it end."

"I know it's time," she continued, taking a moment to compose herself. "I can see the writing on the wall, but it's still hard. There are still troops over there."

Tuesday night, scores of volunteers and others who have helped over the years gathered at the foundation's Ronkonkoma warehouse to assemble, for the last time, packages of beef jerky, bubble gum, playing cards, thick socks and other donated items meant to ease the lives of soldiers serving far from Long Island.

"She sends a little piece of home and love in every box," said Cyndi Ventura, president of the Long Island chapter of Blue Star Mothers, an organization of families of active duty personnel. "She's an angel."

Kenney began the foundation in 2004 in memory of her son, who was killed at 28 on Nov. 16, 2003, when a bomb ripped through a military troop bus near Samarra, 80 miles northwest of Baghdad. The blast also killed Joseph Minucci II, 23, of Richeyville, Pennsylvania, a close friend of Fletcher's.

As Kenney's shipments neared a peak of 10,000 pounds a month, she drew the attention of the Iraq Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund, a California-based charity that awarded her organization $1.5 million in grants over five years. Kenney then began working for her organization full time, earning a $79,000 salary last year, according to the nonprofit's tax records.

But the Impact Fund, created in 2006 by investor David Gelbaum, stopped awarding grants two years ago after giving nearly $250 million to veterans aid organizations.

With her major benefactor lost and individual donations slipping, Kenney could no longer keep Jacob's Light afloat.

It was a bittersweet moment Tuesday night for those who came for the final packing. Volunteers reflected on how important the project had become for them -- and how emotionally wrenching it was to see it come to an end.

Cathy Maerz of Medford, a 7-year volunteer, participated in scores of packing bees. She can remember missing only two -- once to accompany her niece to a Justin Bieber concert at Madison Square Garden.

She also helped raised money in various ways, including selling hot dogs at a local shopping center. A Labor Day fundraiser, held annually at her home, raised about $11,000 this year.

"Me volunteering is more than just helping the troops. It's about helping a woman who made such an ultimate sacrifice," she said. "I'm just in awe of her."

Word of the foundation's closing also drew people touched by its work, including Staff Sgt. Dadmarie Alvarado, 38, of Bayamon, Puerto Rico, who is stationed at Fort Knox in Kentucky. In 2004 and 2009, she received Kenney's packages during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"You guys do not know what that meant," said Alvarado, who came to Long Island and spoke passionately to the volunteers Tuesday. "It was like Christmas."

Also there was John Nystrom, of South Burlington, Vermont, an Army medic who survived the attack that killed Fletcher but struggled at the scene to keep him alive. Having never met Kenney before, he emailed her when he learned the foundation was shutting down and asked if he could come.

Kenney, who stopped accepting a salary from her organization in August, said she hopes to return to either physical therapy or holistic medicine, fields she left to run Jacob's Light.

But for one last night, she was back in her element, exhorting a roomful of bustling volunteers to pack a final round of gift boxes to be sent overseas.

"One deck of cards per box, cookies in each until they run out," she said, moments after being presented the Gold Medal of Merit from the national Veterans of Foreign Wars.

"One salami in a box. And I need someone to guard the salamis."

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