Lake Norman & Mooresville

Plebe's mom, brother bake for soldiers

For most of us, the sugar and shortening are shelved now that the holidays - and baking season - are over.

But Paula Lashley's kitchen counters on Faust Street are perpetually covered with a layer of flour, and a fragrance of vanilla hangs in the air all year long.

Since Lashley's daughter, Morgan, left for West Point and the U.S. Military Academy in August, Lashley and her 10-year-old son, Brendan Hopper, have been baking cookies and putting together care packages for troops around the world. They're hoping that one day, when Morgan is deployed, a kind stranger might extend a piece of home to her.

Lashley admitted she was not fully prepared to deal with the void that Morgan's absence left. She had, after all, devoted much of her life to her daughter, a standout softball player at North Mecklenburg High School who played on the U.S. Junior Olympic team. Many of Lashley's years had been spent shuttling Morgan around the country for tournaments, all with the goal of her eventually playing college ball.

Morgan's post-college goals, however, were a little different.

"We wanted her to get the best possible education so she would have the most opportunities after graduation," Lashley said.

Upon dropping Morgan off at West Point, Lashley was shocked by the regulatory 90-second goodbye.

"I couldn't believe how little time we had, and I completely freaked out," she recalled. Adding to the tension was a film crew taping the moment for the Showtime documentary "Game of Honor," which premiered Dec. 21 (the goodbye is featured prominently in the program).

"You can't understand how to say goodbye to your kid in a minute and a half, or how to deal with only three phone calls in 46 days," Lashley said. According to West Point regulations, "plebes" - or first-year students - are allowed two 10-minute phone calls and one that can last an hour. "It's tough when you can't check in, ask how her day was."

Looking for understanding, Lashley turned to a group of others going through the same thing. She joined a Facebook group for West Point moms, and a subgroup formed from there: 120 mothers interested in baking and putting together care packages for soldiers deployed overseas.

At first, Brendan didn't exactly understand why they were doing this for people they had never met.

"I tried to explain to him that even though we don't know the person, someday his sister would be deployed, and I hoped someone would do something like this for her. He understood when it was put into that context," Lashley said.

The Facebook group leader gives the two the name of a specific soldier and information about him or her, and they set about putting together a box of goodies.

"We always send Propel or Gatorade packs, Easy Mac, oatmeal packs, Nutri-grain bars, beef jerky. ... We keep things simple because of the heat," said Lashley. In addition, she and Brendan make "puppy chow": a mix of almond bark, pretzels, Chex mix, M&Ms, Reese's Pieces and Cheerios, as well as some other snack mixes. And they bake cookies, about five dozen at a time.

The process resonates with Brendan, who enjoys not only licking the batter and spending time with his mom, but helping others. Thus far, he and Lashley have received letters, emails and pictures from every single soldier they have sent boxes to.

"They say over and over how they can't believe how we would take the time to do that, and how good it makes them feel," Lashley said.