Bremerton woman uses her couponing skills to make care packages for sailors

Evelyn Hamm and her children Brandon, 9, and Ashley, 11, prepare care packages at their kitchen table for sailors on the USS John C. Stennis. - JJ Swanson
Evelyn Hamm and her children Brandon, 9, and Ashley, 11, prepare care packages at their kitchen table for sailors on the USS John C. Stennis.
— image credit: JJ Swanson

Don’t call Evelyn Hamm an extreme couponer.

Although she has been known to pack her car trunk full of groceries for only $10, she doesn’t consider herself to be like the ladies on the popular TLC reality show.

“Some of those people have a basement filled with $30,000 of overstock stuff from couponing,” said Hamm. “That’s a little ridiculous to me.”

Hamm targets her coupon skills towards a more altruistic endeavor – gathering basic toiletries for sailors aboard aircraft carriers and Trident II submarines deployed out of Naval Base Kitsap Bangor.

She sends three or four care packages a week for pennies on the dollar.

The former Navy wife explained that the link between coupons and patriotism started when her brother  deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan with the Air Force. Hamm wanted to send him items that he had forgotten to pack or was running out of such as razors, shaving cream, deodorant and even toilet paper.

She kept her eye out for coupons in local newspapers for specific items that her brother had requested like eye drops. A $4 coupon for Visine allowed her to buy a vial for only 52 cents. The savings inspired her to buy not only for her brother, but his whole division whose eyes were drying out in the desert.

“These guys are making the ultimate sacrifice,” said Hamm. “I thought the least I can do is send them some eye drops to show that I support them.”

Hamm’s care packages expanded to include all the deals she could find with her coupons — deodorant, travel shampoos, razors, toothpaste, shaving cream and snacks.

Even though her family sends up to four care packages a week, the project is pretty low impact on their budget thanks to the coupons, said Hamm’s husband Chad, who was once deployed himself.

“I’m glad she does it. I remember what it was like to be in that spot and really miss that stuff from home,” he said. “My favorite thing to get was Red Vines licorice. It reminded me of home.”

Their children Ashley, 11, and Brandon, 9, also decorate the boxes and include letters and drawings for the sailors. The last box had smiley faces drawn all over the outside and a message, “filled with love.”

“The most exciting thing is getting those little letters from people you don’t even know,” said Brandon Raile, public affairs officer for Commander Naval Air Forces in San Diego.

However, toiletries are not necessarily in huge demand on aircraft carriers, Raile said. Since those boats go out pretty well-stocked compared to submarines or ground troops. On carriers, care packages that have a “taste of home” with homemade cookies, magazines, letters and games are more popular than essentials.

There can also be too much of a good thing.

“In 2003 at the start of the war in Iraq, word got back to the states that our guys needed wet wipes,” Raile said. “It blew up into everybody sending wet wipes. We had so many wipes coming through the mail that actual mail wasn’t making it anymore!”

Sending packages is not always so easy and though Hamm tries to serve the sailors aboard the nation’s nuclear deterrent fleet out of Naval Base Kitsap Bangor, she bumps up against security concerns which often throw up red tape before her care packages.

“Bangor public affairs is so tight-lipped about who is gone,” said Hamm. “I understand that they have to be, but I keep trying anyway. I have to help somebody.”

Sub Group 9 has turned Hamm away several times for security reasons. The USS Jimmy Carter said that they do not receive care packages outside of designated drops for families.

“Submarine guys are the hardest to reach because they never come up,” said Hamm. “I hate being told ‘no.’”

Hamm finds ways around blockades by putting out Facebook messages to Navy wives on the boat’s page. Wives or girlfriends will send her a private message, without compromising the boat’s location, and she will arrange packages for them to send.

When exact addresses become a problem, Hamm simply addresses her packages to a certain department number with a note instructing the command to “pass around” the contents to all sailors in that division.

Recipients of Hamm’s packages on the USS Stennis have written her back with thanks and photos of themselves on the boat. One enlisted sailor wrote that his mother had recently passed away and he had not gotten a care package in a while. A package from an unknown family with drawings from her children “warmed his heart” and made him feel like he wasn’t alone in the world.

With the USS Reagan’s arrival this week at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Hamm is gearing up for even more care packages. She has over 500 disposable razors ready to go along with travel size shampoos and deodorants.

Using coupons, she bought everything at only the cost of sales tax.

Hamm is looking to recruit fellow Navy wives, especially those newcomers on the USS Reagan, to get involved with the project and start sharing deals for the troops.

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