Bright Idea

Gina Becker discusses the importance of the ‘Operation Sunblock’ campaign. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

The harsh sun and desert weather can be a tough enemy for our soldiers in Iraq. Which got Gina Becker thinking about sunblock.

The Iraqi desert can be a harsh place to live, and not just because of the landmines and snipers.

The elements also pose a constant, potentially fatal threat to American troops. Temperatures of 120 degrees and beyond are common in summertime, while sub-freezing nights are a winter norm. Seasonal winds bring periodic daylong dust storms. Rain is rare but can be torrential, turning hard, barren valleys into temporary floodwater superhighways.

And perhaps no natural factor is a greater threat to Marines, soldiers and sailors than the relentless, penetrating sun. What’s more, many of the men and women in uniform don’t have the supplies they need to protect themselves. The government doesn’t provide it to them.

“A lot of our troops aren’t getting sunscreen, or what they’re getting isn’t adequate for the blazing sun of the Middle East,” said Gina Becker, a Horsham-based nurse and independent beauty consultant for Mary Kay Cosmetics.

Becker and many of her colleagues have taken it upon themselves to fill the void. In July, Becker began soliciting donations for Operation Sunblock, an effort to prepare and ship care packages directly to deployed servicemen and women.

Each “set” contains SPF-30 sunscreen, SPF-15 lip block and replenishing soap for men or women, along with several fun items like Gummi bears, Skittles and pre-paid calling cards. Each package also contains what the Mary Kay consultants call “a hug from home,” a personalized note thanking the recipient for his or her selfless service.

“It’s a little letter with whatever the (donor) would like to write,” Becker said. “Anybody who donates a set can give a little thank you note, a little hug from home.”

For $20, a donor can sponsor sunscreen and lip block for one person. A $35 donation sponsors the sunscreen, lip block, soap, candies and phone card.

Operation Sunblock has its origins in Wisconsin with Mary Kay’s national area sales director, Lisa Madson.

“One of the consultants in our group has a son with a lot of friends, and a lot of the young men are in the military,” Becker said. “I think she wanted to do something to support the troops because she feels they’re like her sons.”

A grassroots effort began informally a couple of years ago but it soon lost steam.

“We ended up sending boxes to a couple of troops, but I think the problem was finding connections (for specific units),” Becker said.

This year, they reorganized the effort with stronger backing from consultants and supervisors throughout the Mary Kay network. Becker’s local sales director, Pat Nuzzi, is on board, as are several other consultants.

“Once I started telling people what I was doing, they were like, ‘Send me the information,’” Becker said. “Anywhere I’ve been going, I’ve been trying to promote this, just to get the word out.”

She distributes printed information about the program to all of her regular cosmetics clients and passes out fliers at demonstrations, vendor events, craft fairs and regular consultants’ meetings.

In early September, she and her husband Steve, who is a Parkwood native, took part in a group motorcycle ride with the Brothers for Flight 93 to the 9/11 crash site in Shanksville, Pa. She promoted Operation Sunblock during the send-off ceremony at Philadelphia’s prison complex on State Road in the Northeast.

“I was talking to John (Hamilton, the ride organizer) and he thought it would be a great pairing with the Brothers for Flight 93 ride,” Becker said.

“It’s been kind of a snowball effect. It started slow, but the more I’m getting the word out, it’s starting to snowball.”

A few weeks ago, Becker sent out the first 25 sets in a large box. Her contact is a friend, Rosanne Kent, whose husband Tommy is deployed in the Middle East. Unlike some troop relief efforts, Operation Sunblock’s packages are addressed directly to specific recipients, so they shouldn’t be lost or diverted.

“I’ll find out how many troops are in (Kent’s) platoon so I can set a goal (for myself),” Becker said.

She has yet to receive responses from the first shipment but is anxiously anticipating good news.

“I think it’ll be great once I get their feedback,” Becker said. “Then I’ll be able to say to the people who donated that the troops got your donation. Anything you get when you’re away like that, when you’re away from home, it’s like gold.” ••

For information and donations to Operation Sunblock, contact independent beauty consultant Gina Becker at Ginamk67@verizon.net or 267–312–3990.

Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215–354–3031 or bkenny@bsmphilly.com