By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — It began two years ago when she spent money she received for her 16th birthday on items for troops overseas.
She did it in memory of her cousin, a soldier killled in Afghanistan.
Inspired by his heroism, Robyn Hills, now a senior at Sanborn Regional High School, created The Jay Project. She named it after Sgt. Jason Santora of the 3rd Battalion, 75th Army Ranger Regiment.
Santora, 25, of Massapequa Park, N.Y., was seriously wounded in April 2010 in an engagement with an enemy force in Logar Province, Afghanistan, as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. He later died from his wounds.
“I wanted to do something special to honor Jason, our family’s fallen hero,” said Hills, who partnered with Any Soldier Inc., an organization that provides her with the addresses of men and women serving overseas and lists of what they would like. “When I discovered Any Soldier Inc., I knew I had found the perfect partner to help me do exactly that.’’
Hill is a member of a Haverhill-based figure skating organization. She uses that group to get out the word of her efforts to help soldiers, and also collect items at the group’s events.
In an essay she wrote last year, Hills said The Jay Project began on her 16th birthday when she purchased items from a military unit’s wish list with her birthday money. She packed up boxes and sent her first shipment to a war zone.
“The Jay Project has helped many and led to new friendships, opportunities and understandings,” she said in the essay. “I began receiving handwritten letters and emails, messages scrawled on dirty paper, thanking me for the things I sent. Slim Jims and beef jerky, baby wipes and foot powder, all incidental things that were like gold to others. Hearing their stories made me want to help even more.
“When you send as much as I do to the far corners of the world, Afghanistan, Djibouti, a ship somewhere in the Pacific, there are bound to be pen pals,” the essay went on to say. “You connect with people from many different backgrounds and realize that we are not so different.
“By reaching out to soldiers I became connected to the world community,” she said.
Her first collection was in partnership with her school’s Key Club. She found another partner several months ago, resulting in her biggest collection yet.
As a senior member of Northeast Ice Skating Club, a regional U.S. Figure Skating organization based in Haverhill and Lawrence, Hills brought her cause to the group’s attention this past holiday season.
The club dedicated its Holiday Skating Show, held in December at the Valley Forum Rink in Haverhill, to members of the military and to Santora.
During the event, items from soldiers’ “wish lists” were collected through donations.
More than 30 packages of supplies were shipped overseas to various military units.
The club also sent Christmas cards and letters from children and families, along with a group photo of skaters who performed in the Holiday Show.
“NEISC helped me collect more donations and dollars for shipping than any other group,” said Hills, 18, of Newton. “Through their support and generosity, The Jay Project has been able to reach out to many more service members across all branches of military service than ever before.”
Hills said she never met her cousin Jason Santora, but heard about him from relatives.
“They said he was a really funny guy with a great personality and that everyone who knew him loved him,” Hills said. “My cousin loved the military more than anything, so I think he’d be very happy to know I was helping them out.”
NEISC President Kristine Johnson said The Jay Project was a natural fit with her club’s community outreach program.
“Everyone associated with NEISC was proud to be part of such a wonderful effort to honor and help all our U.S. troops and pay special tribute to Robyn’s cousin, Jason, through The Jay Project,” Johnson said.
The Northeast Ice Skating Club at Valley Rinks was founded in 2003 as a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the sport of figure skating and is a U.S. Figure Skating sanctioned club.
Any Soldier Inc. (www.AnySoldier.com), has served more than 2.2 million American service personnel. According to founder and 20-year Army veteran Marty Horn, “Supporters like Robyn Hills of The Jay Project and NEISC make all the difference. It is a letter, maybe even a box, addressed to a particular Soldier, Marine, Sailor, Airman, or Coastguardsman, that will change the day of that warrior. I can tell you for a fact that a simple act like that may not only save the life of that warrior, but affect the morale of the entire unit.”
For more information about Any Soldier Inc. visit online at www.anysoldier.com. For more information about the Northeast Ice Skating Club, visit online at www.northeastisc.com.