Carrie Manley leaned toward U.S. Army veteran Doug Tharp's hospital bed at the VA Palo Alto Spinal Cord Injury Center, the light in her eyes twinkling.
"Man, we brought you salt," she said, pulling a jumbo-sized bag of Lay's potato chips from a grocery bag with handles. Not one bag of chips, but two -- and two jars of dill pickles. It was just what Tharp had wanted for Veterans Day, he said.
"In here it's a lonely place sometimes. It's great to get visitors. It's always nice to get the smiling face," Tharp said, grinning.
On this Veterans Day more than 50 residents and business owners from Midtown to downtown and from north Palo Alto to the south took part in a drive to bring what Manley called "the little gestures (that) add up to a big thing" to veterans in the VA Palo Alto Health Care System's spinal-care unit.
Girl Scouts delivered milk shakes from Peninsula Creamery; kids from Walter Hays Elementary School made bookmarks and cards; Palo Alto High School art teacher Steve Ferrera's 10th graders made colorful banners and Bell's Books owner Faith Bell scoured her shelves in search of desired books. There were steak and lobster dinners donated by the Fish Market and flowers from Midtown's Nature's Alley. A book on living with multiple sclerosis requested by a vet was donated by Kepler's Books in Menlo Park.
Manley started the gift-collection drive three years ago when Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School held a Family Service Learning Day. Everyone contributed every way possible, and that was inspiring, she said.
She and husband Brian Goucher made their front porch "collection central" for the outpouring of community appreciation. On Friday Goucher, Manley, childhood friend Holly Chamberlain and sons Alex Chamberlain and Will Goucher wheeled a cart full of grocery bags for 15 veterans filled with the items they had requested. It was the first of three delivery trips Manley said she planned to make that day.
One man wanted a flowering plant to give to his wife when he returns home tomorrow; another had a birthday the day before and wanted a cheesecake to share and a couple of roses to give to his wife.
One of Chamberlain's favorite stories is of a young veteran who sustained a life-changing injury in Afghanistan. He was victim of friendly fire caused by a friend's bout of horseplay, she said.
Each day the young man's father makes the long trek from Martinez after work to cook a meal for his son. He stays the night on the VA campus at Fisher House, which provides a place to stay for veterans' families, before making the return hourlong trip back to work in the morning.
Veterans Day is the dad's birthday and the son asked for a German Chocolate cake, steak and lobster dinner and a birthday card he can give to his dad. "You should have seen his eyes light up. Now he gets to give something to his father," she said.
Several veterans who are big San Francisco Giants fans will get photos of their favorite players donated by the Sports Gallery on University Avenue, Chamberlain said.
Aaron, 56, an Air Force veteran, had only one wish: a single bookmark. But on Friday Goucher gave him two beautifully inlaid wood markers compliments of Bells' Books -- and a half dozen more bookmarks that are laminated expressions of appreciation from Walter Hays kindergarteners.
"These kids have never written in full sentences and we didn't tell them to. They were determined to write their thoughts," Manley said.
Aaron said he hadn't asked for much because he'd already stocked up. He made the four-mile round trip to Walgreen's on San Antonio Road driving down Arastradero Road sidewalks in his motorized wheelchair, he said.
"It makes me feel real good to be appreciated for serving our country," he said of the gifts and cards.
Manley looked toward her son.
"My gift on Veterans Day is to meet Aaron. I want a little bit of this man to rub off on my children," she said.
Chamberlain said this was her first year as part of the Veterans Day gift giving.
"There are always a million reasons not to do it," she said of one's busy schedule. "I thought, 'I really need to do it. I need to step out of my own stuff and help someone else," she said.
The boys, Will and Alex, pinned colorful banners from the high school students in the center's day room. T-H-A-N-K Y-O-U, they spelled out. Each letter was a different color and pattern. Below, the artists had signed their names.
Manley looked at the cart loaded with gifts and reflected on something she has learned after three years: The real gift isn't what's in the bags, but what is in hearts, and sharing time with the veterans is the best gift of all:
"What they ask for is so humble. That isn't really the gift at all. These are vehicles for the connection," she said. "I feel like we're the next-door neighbors. It's the neighborly thing to do."