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'Connecting hearts one tag at a time'

Jefferson Award-winner Rose Sliepka
November 7, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
Here at ABC7, we like to recognize those of you who take the time and effort to make your community better. One great way to do that is through the Jefferson Awards.The Jefferson Awards come from an organization founded by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1972 to encourage and honor volunteers for their contributions through community service. Each month, ABC7 will bring you the stories of Jefferson Award winners. This month's winner is Rose Sliepka.

In her small shop in Lancaster, Rose Sliepka is busy engraving thousands of dog tags, a small token from a very big heart. Rose has made it her mission to provide every soldier who's a parent a chance to connect with their children back home. Her Dog Tags for Kids Project has already provided 379,000 tags to soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait.

"We call it 'Connecting hearts one tag at a time,' and that's what we really believe," said Sliepka. "The military person, they're excited because they're empowered to send something to their child."

When Navy Commander Tom Sutton was deployed, leaving his sons Michael and Christian, it was tough on them.

"He didn't know, understand why I was leaving," said Cmmdr. Sutton. "I was gone for about six months before he would even come to the phone and talk to me."

Tom's story is a common one for deployed military. In fact, it was a similar story that inspired Rose to start Dog Tags for Kids. She'd heard about a soldier who wanted to mail something to his child, but didn't have anything meaningful to send. For Tom, those dog tags meant the world to his boys.

"The next time I called home, Michael and Christian ran to the phone, I was able to talk to them about the last six months of their lives," said Cmmdr. Sutton.

"We had one guy who wrote and said thank you, this is something we held, we touched, we sent, not something our spouse told us we sent, and it makes a difference," said Sliepka. "We get guys who say they take it out of the package and wear it for a few days, so it's next to their heart first."

In all starts at Rose's Lancaster shop where she engraves thousands of tags in appropriate service colors. Volunteers help fill out customs paperwork, bag and send the tags. However, Rose still has 20,000 requests to fill. From printer to soldier, each tag costs only 50 cents. She relies solely on donations: 100 percent of the money goes to make more tags.

"Then you see the smiles of kids on our Web site and I think 50 cents is nothing when you know you made two people happy," said Sliepka.

Cmmdr. Sutton is back from the battlefield and now on the soccer field, but Christian and Michael still cherish those tags.

"I showed it off at first," said Christian.

"I wear it whenever I go to special events," said Michael. "If this wasn't a soccer game I'd definitely be wearing it."

It's those smiles that make the Dog Tags for Kids program worthwhile.