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Gingerbread building project delivers holiday fun to military families

HINESVILLE, Georgia — Military housing construction is not typically regarded as “fun,” but it’s the best word to describe a recent building project at the Fort Stewart Youth Center.

Several military families gathered to build holiday gingerbread houses for an event organized by Elder Scott Cunningham and Sister Kris Cunningham, military relations representatives for the Church.

Building lighted gingerbread houses is a Christmas tradition for the Cunninghams, who serve in the Georgia Macon Mission. It is something they and their four children have enjoyed for years.

After receiving their assignment last year to serve at Fort Stewart, Sister Cunningham explored the possibility of organizing a gingerbread house building event for families stationed at the U.S. Army post. She proposed the idea to Dov Estroff of the Fort Stewart Morale, Welfare and Recreation department and received an enthusiastic response: “Yes, why not?”

Soon the project for the 2017 holiday season began to take shape.

Club Stewart bakers provided the basic gingerbread house building materials, including the walls, roofs and icing for snow and for holding the structures together. Meanwhile, the Welfare and Recreation department provided the decorative materials such as miniature cookies, tables and Christmas village figures to decorate the houses.

The event was widely publicized across the Fort Stewart community and, on the designated Saturday afternoon, 12 families arrived to build their own houses.

The project was organized by Estroff and his assistants, Michelle Calvert and Carly Michael. Workstations were set up for each building project. Materials and detailed instructions were provided at each building site.

LDS missionaries, Sister Whitney Jacobson and Sister Michaela Parkinson and Elder Jared Darrington and Elder Robert Mashburn, provided additional assistance. The missionaries had been trained on the best ways to build and decorate the gingerbread houses so they could assist the homebuilders.

“The missionaries who provided their time to help the soldiers and families create their gingerbread houses were critical to the success of the program,” said Estroff.

Families who participated in the gingerbread house event included those with a deployed spouse and those with wounded soldiers. The project also provided opportunities for LDS military members to fellowship with other military families of all faiths.

Evie Rodriquez, the outreach coordinator of the Soldier and Family Assistance Center, said that the project “empowered the soldiers to help out their community and gave them a purpose associated with families.”

She also helped Sister Cunningham develop a new perspective regarding the “Army way” of doing things. At one point, Sister Cunningham was concerned that some of the soldiers were getting too creative in the design of their roofs and worried that they might not fit.

Ms. Rodriquez told her: “Sister Cunningham, you don’t understand. The Army does not let people from the outside come in and do things. You have a light. God helped you get two organizations to work together to get this project to happen. It is the message that counts. God will take care of the details.”

To help energize the homebuilders, Estroff and his Welfare and Recreation department crew also provided refreshments.

Families crafted their gingerbread houses with great intensity because the event doubled as a competition that would be judged for awards at the Fort Stewart Christmas lighting event on Dec. 5.

At day’s end, proud and tired families displayed their handiwork and headed home, taking with them a fun family holiday memory.

On Dec. 5, at the annual Fort Stewart Christmas Lighting Ceremony, judges reviewed 12 of the gingerbread houses entered. Some 900 people attended and 284 voted for their favorite gingerbread house. Not only did this project impact the immediate families involved, but it also demonstrated to the broader community on Fort Stewart the possibilities for such projects.

As military relations representatives for the Church, the Cunninghams' responsibilities include serving members of the military at Fort Stewart and in their community. Elder Cunningham graduated from Army Ranger School while serving in the United States Marine Corps before marrying Sister Cunningham. They know that traditions such as Christmas-time gingerbread house building are important to families, especially when one of the parents are deployed.

“It is always exciting to use our talents to serve,” said Sister Cunningham. The young missionaries and Elder and Sister Cunningham have also been asked by Chaplain Kenneth Harris of Winn Army Hospital to play Christmas carols on the chimes for the hospital workers on Christmas Day.

Recognizing the value of the gingerbread house project, Estroff was appreciative of the fact “that it brought family members together, especially those with deployed soldiers." He said, "Twelve families participated. The feedback we received was that all were appreciative to do something positive and creative together. We hope to do similar programs in the future.”