County staff sends smiles to Navy squadron overseas

Beaufort County Clerk of Court Elizabeth Smith and her staff returned to work Dec. 29 to find a late Christmas present in their e-mail inboxes.

They discovered a half dozen photos of smiling men and women wearing red and green turtlenecks and opening Christmas gifts Smith and her staff had sent them before Thanksgiving.

"Sometimes when you donate to a charity or participate in something like this, you don't know who you're sending it to," Smith said. "So to get those pictures back and to see those sailors opening those gifts, and seeing the joy and the genuine delight on their faces was really something."

The smiling faces belonged to the sailors of Navy Strike Fighter Squadron 15, a Virginia-based Hornet squadron on a nine-month carrier deployment in the Middle East aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt. The squadron, nicknamed the Valions, was the beneficiary of the annual service project.

Since 2001, the staff has selected a different charity each year. VFA-15 was chosen because Addie Lee's son-in-law, Chief Petty Officer Nicolas Batista, is the flight deck coordinator for the squadron, which is based at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, Va. Lee is the county jury coordinator.

"Often we are asked to participate in service projects, and we do. But we rarely see the end result," Lee said. "It has been a nice change to hear that the gifts we sent ... helped facilitate the Christmas spirit for these fine men and women who do so much for us."

Smith's 25-person staff filled 17 shoe boxes, one for each member of Batista's work station, with candy, DVDs, socks, shampoo, hot sauce and other items.

"They weren't big, expensive gifts," said Janice Young, deputy clerk of court. "It was little corny things, but those are the things you miss when you're away from home."

The presents were wrapped and shipped before Thanksgiving to ensure delivery aboard the carrier before Christmas, Lee said. Once aboard, Batista stashed the packages away and surprised his fellow sailors Dec. 19.

"The chiefs at my squadron loved the packages they received," he wrote. "It really did put us all in the Christmas spirit receiving those gifts."