Meredith Kelly’s interest in making life overseas a little bit nicer for American soldiers started more than 40 years ago. As a student at Riverside-Brookfield High School in the 1960s the then-Meredith Hay used to get together with girlfriends and bake cookies to send to local boys fighting in Vietnam.
“On weekends we’d bake cookies and ship items over to our buddies in Vietnam,” Kelly recently recalled. “It was just friends letting friends know that we cared about them.”
In 2003, two of Kelly’s nephews were Marines deployed to Iraq. Kelly decided she wanted to do to make a difficult deployment a little easier for her nephews and other soldiers, sailors and Marines. In March of 2003 as the Iraq War commenced, she founded Operation Stars and Stripes, an all-volunteer organization that sends care packages and boxes of goodies and supplies to American fighting men and women overseas.
For this work, Kelly, a member of the RB class of 1968, is being honored tomorrow evening with the Alumni Achievement Medal at annual dinner by the RB Educational Foundation.
Also receiving the Alumni Achievement Medal this year is Kelly’s classmate and friend, Pamela Kuda Quinn, and 1992 graduate William McGoldrick.
Kelly said that she was shocked when she found out that she had been selected to receive the award.
“I am very honored, very humbled,” Kelly said. “This award isn’t about me. It’s about all the people, all our volunteers who have worked very, very hard.”
On July 1, Kelly was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Because of the illness, she will have to stop her tireless work at Operation Stars and Stripes.
“Due to my illness I will not be able to continue doing this,” Kelly said. “I will be closing down Stars and Stripes at the end of December.”
But Kelly is looking for people who might be able to continue the mission of Stars and Stripes and would be happy to talk with anyone who is interested in carrying on the mission.
Her mission of helping others has been a lifelong one. After graduating from RB in 1968, Kelly went to Triton College and became a licensed practical nurse. She worked for a year in surgical oncology at Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Hospital in Chicago before moving on to Loyola Medical Center in Maywood, where she worked in pediatrics and helped set up the neonatal intensive care unit.
“I think I always knew that I wanted to be nurse,” Kelly said. “When I was a child I was always bringing home sick animals.”
From 1982 to 1997 Kelly worked at Riverside-Brookfield High School as the supervisor of student health services, better known as the school nurse.
“Many of the teachers that I had were still there and I always loved RB so to be back at my alma mater and to be working with the kids coming through was a wonderful experience for me,” Kelly said.
As the founder and chairperson of Operation Stars and Stripes, Kelly has sent more than 10,000 boxes and goodie bags to troops overseas in Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Guantanamo Bay.
The boxes contain basics such as coffee, toiletries, blankets, snacks, microwave ovens, hot plates, slow cookers, clothing, sub block, bug spray, even refrigerators and many other items to make a harsh combat deployment a bit more bearable for troops.
Initially headquartered in a General Motors warehouse space and later her home, the operation is now run out of a former recreation building in Lyons.
“Whatever it is they need we try to meet their wish list,” Kelly said.
Kelly’s father, Gordon Hay, a 1940 graduate of RB was a B-17 bomber pilot in World War II, flying missions over Europe out of England.
“I have him to thank for all my patriotism and to be grateful for what we have in the United States,” Kelly said. “My father always flew an American flag.”