Hollis, New Hampshire — It all started 16 years ago with a handful of assorted Christmas and Hanukkah cards, a turkey in the oven and an ultimatum.
"It was Thanksgiving. I handed everybody at the table five cards," Laura Landerman-Garber recalled, smile widening. "And I said, 'Nobody's eating until you write words to our military.'"
The 60-year-old child psychologist stumbled upon the idea of sending holiday cards to deployed troops while fanning through a glossy magazine in the waiting room at the dentist's office.
"It was one of those family magazines, probably 300 years old," Landerman-Garber laughed. "And it said, 'Why don't you write letters to the military over the holidays?' You know, they're alone, and they're far from home."
Since then, the Military Holiday Card Challenge has expanded exponentially, growing from a family business of sorts to an international production, with boxes of envelopes eating up more and more space in the basement of Landerman-Garber's New Hampshire home. This year's six-figure haul features cards from over 30 states plus Canada with signatures from tens of thousands of elementary school students, the governor of New Hampshire and nearly two dozen 2020 presidential candidates.
After all, it is primary season in the first-in-the-nation state of New Hampshire, and candidates courting voters swoop in and out of the Granite State by the half dozen.
Holiday cards splayed across the dining room table, Landerman-Garber recently ticked through those written by the current White House contenders, reciting candid exchanges and personal messages.
Cory Booker wrote a long note before recording a selfie video in a Manchester diner. Bernie Sanders was funny and "yelling about something," signing only his name.
Joe Biden spoke "gently" and appeared physically moved by the project. "He was so engaged, he accidentally wrote my name in the card," Landerman-Garber quipped. "It'll work."
The list goes on, extending to some of the lesser known candidates: Florida Mayor Wayne Messam, who was "really nice" and taller than expected. Author Marianne Williamson penned her holiday note in script, then vowed to paint the Oval Office pink. Colorado Senator Michael Bennet appeared "all smiles," balancing the note atop his knee while signing.
Landerman-Garber, a self-proclaimed "small-town grandma," will spend much of Veterans Day soliciting signatures alongside Elizabeth Warren in a "pop-up" booth at a campaign rally in Exeter.
Two weekends ago, Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard brought Landerman-Garber to New York City to join her on ABC's "The View." It was a "surreal" experience, Landerman-Garber noted, dishing out cards to Meghan McCain and Whoopi Goldberg.
Still, recruiting presidential candidates and celebrities is the easy part. Coordinating the bundling, packaging and shipping of tens of thousands of holiday well-wishes to military bases in the U.S. and around the world is harder. The weeks-long effort "takes a village" — an effort involving dozens of neighborhood volunteers, thousands of donated rubber bands and drop-boxes along the East Coast.
"My house looks like Hallmark dropped in for a visit," Landerman-Garber joked.
Deliveries began with shipments to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and nonprofits like the Wounded Warrior Project. Then in 2017, Landerman-Garber added a shipment to a naval carrier after a family friend deployed overseas. In 2018, overwhelmed by 30,000 handmade elementary school greetings, she sought out locations from Senate offices, one high-up friend in the U.S. Air Force and retired military members, plus "a little bit of sleuthing on my part," Landerman-Garber chuckled.
Last year, the final shipment weighed more than 1,800 pounds. Out-of-state family members had spread word to local businesses, pancake breakfasts and neighborhood churches. "They just kept pouring in." She paused, transitioning to a whisper. "I even got some — and I don't know how — from the Sandy Hook community."
The operation that began with biweekly card runs to the dollar store has begun accepting a few donations. Boxes are provided by UPS, with card donations from small businesses and a handful of corporate sponsors. The post office in Hollis, New Hampshire, opens two hours early on "shipment days" to accommodate the carloads of Christmas, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah paper sentiments. This season, Landerman-Garber anticipates sending over 100,000 cards total.
"This year, I have 10 addresses for Coast Guard deployed domestically. I also have three aircraft carriers," Landerman-Garber said, rattling off the destinations. "Plus three bases — one in Qatar, one in Iraq, one in Afghanistan."
Letters from the governor commending the Holiday Card Challenge sit inside living room bookcases. Last year, New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan read a tribute to the patriotic endeavor into the Congressional Record.
"Women of the Year" certificates bookend a three-inch binder of laminated photos — sixth graders, lawmakers and family members penning holiday cards throughout the years.
Yet the moments Landerman-Garber remembers most are quieter, void of fanfare or flashing cameras, without politicians or printed recognition: the retired Marine who fought in World War II and helped expand the card challenge to all five military branches. The gracious family from Oregon who stumbled upon a card-collection box in nearby Massachusetts. The local boy scout who launched the effort's official Facebook page last year.
Known simply as the "Card Lady" by local middle schoolers and kindergarteners alike, Landerman-Garber joked she's been called worse. "I'll take it," she said.
The name, after all, fits. "I keep cards in my car. I keep them in my purse. Sometimes I joke, like, 'Does anybody need a Christmas card? A Hanukkah card? A Kwanzaa card? I have all three right now.'" Landerman-Garber grins. "They're like, 'I really just need a piece of gum.'"
Cards may be written in any fashion, so long as they begin with the words "Dear Warrior."
The annual "Holiday Card Challenge," its founder argues, invites a conversation often absent outside of Veterans Day and Memorial Day. And while wars trudge on overseas, their toll is "not impacting most people day to day," Landerman-Garber conceded.
"But it's important to have this dialogue among children, teens and grownups about who is in your community," she added. "Who is a service family? Did your grandparent serve? You know, there's always a connection."
Such connections are common in New Hampshire, a state where 10% of adults are veterans, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Conversations rooted in commonalities prove healing in a politically diverse swing state that Hillary Clinton won in 2016 by just 2,700 votes.
"No one knows who I vote for," Landerman-Garber noted. "Nobody asks me and I don't ask them."
That is intentional, the Card Lady argues, to bring people together around the uncomplicated notion of gratitude. "It doesn't matter what religion they are, who they love. It doesn't matter how old they are." She jokes that both her 3-year-old grandkids and 97-year-old father scribble greetings.
"Around Thanksgiving and Veterans Day, families are reflecting, right? People are thankful." Landerman-Garber paused, reflecting herself for a moment. "It works because it's simple. All I'm asking is for people to reach inside themselves, and create something for someone else that they will never even meet."
For more information about the Military Holiday Card Challenge, visit here.