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COLUMBUS-- It all started with a regular meeting of the Pinn Club eight years ago. But at this meeting, business was not usual.

The organization discussed a very real issue with the military. Thousands of servicemen and women deployed at all months of the year are missing sharing major holidays with family.

The Pinn Club wanted to help ease this stress for military members in any way they could. They came up with a project called Christmas for our Troops. The project collects items from the community that can be shipped all over the world to military members.

Keri Schnell, Pinnacle Bank vice president of real estate lending, was appointed as organizer of the project.

“I used to help my daughter, Kylie, do blood drives when she was a student at Lakeview,” Schnell said. “We used to hold them in the basement at Pinnacle Bank. When she graduated, I heard about the Christmas for our Troops and asked if we could hold the production of it in the same place.”

The collection process has always been similar.

“I start e-mailing schools in September to let them know the donation process is about to begin,” Schnell said. “Sept. 11 has always been the day we start collecting. I pick that day because it is nationally symbolic.”

Schnell and her ever growing group of volunteers asks the community for quality items ranging from notebooks to healthcare items to be sent all over the world for our brothers and sisters in arms.

“The YMCA sets up a collection site for us, and there are also collection sites at each Pinnacle Band branch,” she said. “We collect the items and sort any donation that we come across.”

Pinnacle Bank Market President Dann Smith, who helps Schnell with donations each year, said donations of all kinds have shown up in the past.

“Last year we had a gentleman from Grand Island who processes deer jerky donate 200 pounds to us,” Smith said. “It’s amazing to have unexpected people to come out and come together for something like this.”

Christmas for Our Troops has grown tremendously since it started.

“The first year we were able to send 24 boxes out,” Schnell said. “In 2015 we sent 142 boxes, 2016 we had 221 sent out and in 2017 there were 264.”

The greatest reward Schnell gets from participating in the program is the reception she receives from military members all over the world.

“Hearing back from servicemen and their families is the best part,” she said. “With some of them, I feel like I know them on a personal level. I know one year I got an e-mail from one of the recipients. It was a chain mail, so I don’t think I was intended to see the whole message. In the messages there was a chaplain who was telling my sender how grateful he and the unit were to be getting the boxes from us. I found that pleasantly surprising.”

The volunteers Schnell organizes seem to enjoy their duty as well.

“Last year we had about 200 or 250 volunteers,” she said. “Families come in with their children and help us organize and pack the boxes. It’s all a lot of fun because we know it’s for an amazing cause. They all really enjoy it, and everybody seems to get into it. Kids, older folks and everyone in between helps us.”

The last round of donations included a special treat for servicemen and women.

“Elementary school students from here sent out letters to the troops,” Schnell said. “The kids also sent color pages from coloring books. That certainly added a personal touch.”

Even though she is the main organizer for the project, Schnell doesn’t take all the credit.

”I’ve met so many generous people,” she said. “Pinnacle Bank, Dann Smith, the Columbus community and surrounding communities make this possible by providing names and addresses of military members, monetary donations for postage, donation of items to ship and their time to help us pack the boxes.”

A special thanks was also offered to the Columbus Post Office as they have “been great to work with over the years.”

“We showed up one November afternoon with three pick-up loads of care packages,” Schnell said. “They worked efficiently to help us get these boxes to some special people.”

There are just under seven months until donations will be pouring in for the 2018 year. Despite this, Schnell is admittedly overwhelmed not only with the support from the community, and surrounding communities, but the service men and women they are diligently working for.

“We couldn’t do this without all these people,” Schnell said. “And there is no way that I could thank each of them enough.”

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