Semper Fi sisterhood: Destin woman leads the charge to help servicewomen through Beach Blast

Tim Croft
Sgt. Carl Robert Gunnerson, with the U.S. Marine Corps takes a photo with his parents – Mary Beth and Rob Gunnerson – on Mother’s Day, 2008 after his return from Iraq.

Mary Beth Gunnerson made an observation and took action. The result will provide a touch of home to servicemen and women in harm’s way in Afghanistan.

Gunnerson, from Destin, attended the packing party during last year’s annual Semper Fi Sisters Beach Blast in Port St. Joe. During the party, the Sisters — wives, grandmothers, sisters, aunts of deployed military personnel — assembled care packages for troops in war zones.

“The only thing we all had in common is a fierce, profound and protective love of our servicemen and women. Those are the ties that bind,” said Gunnerson, whose son Sgt. Carl Robert Gunnerson is in the United States Marine Corps.

Gunnerson, who had been introduced to Semper Fi Sisters during a banquet for mothers of deployed soldiers, noticed that while two long lines were devoted to packing boxes with a masculine touch for the servicemen, the “powder puff” line packing for servicewomen was a single line and not nearly as long as the other two.

Gunnerson, co-owner with her husband of Sporty Lady, a ladies swimwear and sportswear shop in Destin, came up with a brainstorm while en route to The Miami Swim Trade Show in south Florida.

She wondered if she brought a flyer about Semper Fi Sisters and their Beach Blast in Port St. Joe — this year’s begins Oct. 17 — to each of her appointments, if vendors would be willing to ship her any leftover giveaway items after the trade show season was over.

“I have been absolutely stunned by the response,” Gunnerson said. “I’ve gotten monetary donations, not only from corporate offices, but from regional sales reps. One vendor sent merchandise that wholesale is worth about $7,000.”

“This industry has just responded,” she said, and from all over the world as Gunnerson received pens, hats and visors from a vendor in Germany and merchandise from Australia. As the boxes came in, she also received lip balms, mini-pedicure kits, and Batik dresses, Gunnerson noted, “Everyone in this country, regardless of political viewpoint, wants to help the military,” she said. “They just need a vehicle. It’s all about letting the servicemen and women know that the average citizen has not forgotten they are there and why they are there.”

Even Gunnerson’s Destin dentist Dr. Richard Rogers joined the effort. When she mentioned what she was doing and why, Gunnerson said he later produced 288 kits, complete with toothbrush, paste and floss.

Adele Armitage is the director of the Ecumenical Choir of Walton County, of which Gunnerson is also a member. The choir puts on several community performances each year to raise money for charity. Gunnerson introduced the group to Semper Fi Sisters.

Last year, the group did a concert for the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and donated the money to help defray shipping costs for the Semper Fi Sisters’ care packages.

Gunnerson and Armitage began “burning up the internet” with ideas about getting more people involved in the Semper Fi Sisters.

Armitage even got her chorus class at South Walton High School involved. The teacher and students decorated boxes in holiday colors and distributed them throughout the school, igniting something of a challenge to all classes to see who could bring in the most items to send to troops. “I think it’s important for the kids not to be only part of themselves,” Armitage said. “They need to look beyond themselves to the world around them.”

Gunnerson will be in Port St. Joe — along with 75 Sisters from 23 states who have registered to attend this year’s Beach Blast — next month with their donated items, applying some Forgotten Coast love to the Boxes of Love. From the first year when 12 women packed 36 boxes to 24 packing 300 boxes the next year to 52 packing more than 700 boxes last year, the effort has grown exponentially. This year the goal is 1,000 “Boxes of Love.”

As a Marine mom, Gunnerson understands what the Beach Blast provides to the women — in effect a four-day Girls Night Out break from the homefront of war. She recognizes its value to those clinging to normalcy when little of life is normal with a loved one overseas in a war zone.

“We are all at different stages of having a need for support. If they are about to come home, you are happy. If they are just entering boot camp, you are sad,” Gunnerson said. “It’s nice to have a group of women who know what you are going through.”

WANT TO HELP? For a list of suggested items for the care packages, to donate money for shipping and to learn more about the Port. St. Joe-based group, see Donation deadline is Oct. 16 •Sporty Lady — Next to Publix across from Destin Commons — 837-6763 •South Walton High School — 645 Greenway (off Hwy 331), SRB, FL — 267-0429 •Christ the King Episcopal Church — 480 N. County Hwy 393, SRB, FL — 267-3332 •"The Caf" — Corner of U.S. Hwy 98 and County Hwy 393 — 267-2293 •The UPS Store at Watercolor Crossing — 174 WaterColor Way, SRB — 231-3505 •Enzo's Italian Restaurant — 1598 S. Co. Hwy 393, SRB, FL — 267-3003