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‘Hero Hugs’ Founder Honored for Supporting Troops

By Samantha L. Quigley / American Forces Press Service

Bailey Reese, 11, was recently chosen as one of three American Girl doll company’s 2007 Real Girls of the Year for her efforts to thank servicemembers for their sacrifices. She does this through Hero Hugs, which she founded in 2003. She was joined in Los Angeles by Hero the bear, Hero Hugs’ stuffed mascot (left) and American Girl’s 2007 Doll of the Year, Nicki Fleming. Courtesy photo

WASHINGTON, July 13, 2007 - She’s only 11 years old, but Bailey Reese has logged more community service than many Americans twice her age, all to ensure servicemembers know their sacrifices are appreciated.

Since 2003, when she started “Hero Hugs,” a group that sends care packages to deployed servicemembers, Bailey has logged more than 3,000 volunteer hours. And now officials at the American Girl doll company have named her a “Real Girl of the Year” for 2007.

“I think taking care of our soldiers and saying thanks is something everyone should be doing, and it isn’t something special,” Bailey said. “The soldiers are the ones who deserve recognition for all they sacrifice and give, not me.”

Hero Hugs is a member of America Supports You, a Defense Department program connecting citizens and corporations with military personnel and their families serving at home and abroad.

Bailey said she’s always honored when her efforts are recognized, because she hopes any recognition she receives will “inspire someone else to think of our troops and do something to brighten their day.”

Bailey is one of three girls chosen as a 2007 Real Girl of the Year. More than 14,000 girls were nominated by their parents or guardian, a program requirement. Diana Reese, Bailey’s mom, nominated her.

As an award recipient, Bailey will receive $5,000 for Hero Hugs, which will be a huge help when it comes to shipping holiday care packages to servicemembers, she said. Her Niceville, Fla., school will receive the same amount.

“I am … really happy my school is getting something too,” Bailey said. “They always support what I do, and … I think it’s great the school will be able to do something that will benefit all our students who have helped in ways big and small.”

Perhaps the best part of being named a 2007 Real Girl of the Year was the trip to Los Angeles for the award ceremony. While there, she got a taste of what’s she’s been dishing out to the troops.

“We were walking around (the American Girl Place) store and an employee stops and looks at me and says, ‘I know you, don’t I?” Bailey remembered. “My mom told him I was their Real American Girl, and he got all excited.

“It was a little weird to have people I didn’t even know recognize me,” she added.

The star treatment extended beyond the American Girl employee in the store. The company set up a booth for Hero Hugs, and its employees helped other girls attending a volunteer fair to pack boxes for Hero Hugs.

“This part was a little hard, because the managers told me it was my day and since I had worked so hard they just wanted me to enjoy the day,” Bailey said. “Before the event, the store employees had all gotten together and packed some packages for the soldiers, too. I think we ended up with over 300 packages for soldiers by the end of the day, and a really huge bag filled with (thank you) cards.”

But even after her day of stardom had officially ended, Bailey discovered one more fan at a well-known Los Angeles-area restaurant.

“When we were checking out, I started talking to the manager and was telling him about why we were in L.A.,” Bailey said. “I told him all about Hero Hugs and America Supports You. (He) ripped up our check and told me that I was his hero. That was pretty awesome!”

Even Hero, the Hero Hugs program’s stuffed bear mascot who has served several “tours” of his own in Iraq, was mesmerized by the glitz of Hollywood, Bailey said.

“People are always wanting their photo with me and Hero, so he is like a celebrity,” she said. “I think he was wanting to … have his own cartoon and … get his own star in Hollywood.”