OLD ORCHARD BEACH – Sitting in her kitchen, Nancy Lee Kelley flips through a scrapbook of photos, cards and letters, reminiscing about the many people who have helped her support soldiers and military veterans over the past five years.

“It’s just from here,” she said, gesturing to the kitchen table that serves as headquarters for the support group, Hugs of Love — Support Our Troops. “It’s nothing major.”

But for the veterans who receive care packages and gift baskets from Hugs of Love, it is major.

“Our veterans are very, very grateful,” said Ken Darby, a case manager at the Arthur B. Huot House for homeless veterans in Saco. “She’s like an angel to these guys.”

In the years since Kelley founded Hugs of Love, she has mailed more than 350 care packages to soldiers overseas, all filled with donated items, stuffed bears and handwritten letters from people in Old Orchard Beach, Saco and Biddeford. Now, as military involvement in Iraq winds down, Kelley is refocusing the group’s energy on providing support to veterans closer to home.

Next month, Hugs of Love will deliver 18 holiday baskets to formerly homeless veterans living at the Huot House in Saco and Veterans’ Career House in Biddeford, both run by Volunteers of America. The baskets will include homemade cookies and fudge, cards made by local elementary school students and grocery store gift cards purchased with donations from local individuals and American Legion posts in Old Orchard Beach and Wells-Ogunquit.

With donations still coming in, the baskets are likely to contain other surprises as well.

“People are caring about these men who have served and probably never got any recognition,” Kelley said.

The mission is personal for Kelley.

Kelley founded Hugs of Love in 2007, three years after her son, Army National Guard Capt. Christopher Cash, was killed while leading his infantry company against insurgents in Baqubah, Iraq, on June 24, 2004.

Before her son’s death, Kelley would go to the post office every Monday to mail a care package to his unit. Those care packages stopped while she dealt with the overwhelming grief of losing her only son.

The idea of forming a support group came to Kelley in the middle of the night. She first shared the idea with Louise Reid, the assistant town manager, then began putting the word out about her mission to “always remember our beloved troops who are serving our nation either on the home front or overseas,” Kelley said.

It was a labor of love for the Gold Star mother and a tangible way to show the same love and support for veterans and their families she received after her son was killed.

“This was a positive way for me to get through the grief. I wanted to focus on the positive, not the negative,” Kelley said. “A letter to a soldier is more meaningful than any package they could possibly get. Someone took the time to sit down and ask about their lives.”

The response to Kelley’s call to action has been overwhelming. With every request for donations, she receives calls from individuals and groups who rush to donate homemade quilts, heartfelt letters and money to buy gifts for soldiers and veterans.

Reid, who helps get the word out when Hugs of Love needs donations, said Kelley created “an unbelievable outreach program not only for servicemen, but for their families as well.”

“The amount and enormity of support she gets from people is wonderful,” she said.

Linda Mailhot, a town councilor and local business owner who financially supports Hugs of Love, said, “It is important to make sure veterans are not forgotten,” and believes others in the community feel the same way.

“I’m so proud of our community. They’re full of heart and they’re full of caring,” she said. “The outpouring of caring and support is not surprising but is definitely heartwarming.”

At the Huot House, veterans will be happy to greet Kelley and her husband, Bob, when they arrive later this month with gift baskets and Christmas decorations, Darby said. The residents have gotten to know the couple through visits for other holidays.

“We have many people who come in to drop off donations, but with Nancy it’s different. She’s more like a mother and grandmother to these guys,” he said. “She gives it a personal touch, complete with hugs of love.”

Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

ggraham@mainetoday.com

Twitter: grahamgillian