LORETTO - When Maggie Biter and Barb Bender first began collecting holiday cards for troops stationed overseas, the volume of cards almost overwhelmed the pair.
During their holiday season in 1986, members of the Altar/Rosary Society at the Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Loretto collected 300 handwritten cards from area students and families.
Last year, the group collected 21,509 cards - enough to fill 21 large boxes destined for U.S. troops stationed overseas, Biter said.
Connor Semelsberger and Catherine Hull sort through cards collected for the Military Mail campaign at Bishop Carroll Catholic High School.
"They've just been so generous," Biter said. "We've just been overwhelmed by the generosity of everybody."
Students from area schools and universities, including St. Francis University, Mount Aloysius College, Bishop Carroll Catholic High School and Penn Cambria and Cambria Heights school districts, all donated cards with handwritten messages, Biter said.
St. Francis topped the list with more than 10,000 cards collected, said Marie Young, director of marketing and communications.
"It was a university and a community effort," Young said.
Students and faculty from the St. Francis military affairs office, dining services and the women's field hockey and swim teams all collected at least 100 cards, she said.
Students typically write a holiday greeting to the troops and express their thanks, said Joe Skura, Bishop Carroll public relations director.
"I was very impressed with the notes they had written inside" the 2,250 cards collected at Bishop Carroll, Skura said. "I'm just proud that our students are able to see the importance of doing things to brighten other people's days."
Bishop Carroll junior Alex Repko said he was proud of his fellow students' efforts.
"I thought it was important to give back [to the troops] because they give back so much to us," Repko said. "I always say thank you and pray for our soldiers."
The cards are sent to the Friends of Our Troops organization in Fayetteville, N.C., and then shipped to the soldiers, Biter said.
Schools also collected monetary donations to help cover the cost of postage for the cards, she added.
And it is not uncommon for the troops to return their thanks - students have sometimes received thank-you notes with foreign currency and pictures of the troops in return, Biter said.
While the quantity of cards was both "overwhelming" and humbling for the church, Biter said it is important the students write meaningful messages and let the troops know they have their support while away from home.
"You want it to mean something," Biter said. "It's so heart wrenching that you want to reach out to them."
Mirror Staff Writer Zach Geiger is at 946-7535.