The Christmas Kathy Sharpe Jones ’79 spent deployed on a remote Iraqi outpost, both she and her children back home received several packages of presents in the mail. The boxes came from Stewart Menking ’79 and other members of their class, who learned that she was serving near the front lines for a year.

Kathy Sharpe Jones, Williams Class of 1979, served as the psychologist member of a Combat Stress Team on a forward-operating base near Najaf, Iraq, in 2005.
Kathy Sharpe Jones ’79 served as the psychologist member of a Combat Stress Team on a forward-operating base near Najaf, Iraq, in 2005. Her deployment inspired Stewart Menking ’79 to start Adopt-an-Eph to provide “apolitical support to any Eph deployed in harm’s way.“

“They sent me toilet paper, baby wipes, a pillow,” says Sharpe Jones, a former U.S. Army Major. She recalls with a laugh one particularly special item she received: “I wanted some lipstick because I was color deprived. Everything around me was tan and beige. When Stewart asked what he could send, I sent him to the Fashion Fair counter at Macy’s—it’s a line of makeup for women of color—and there goes Stewart, all seven feet, white man of him, asking for two tubes of Spicy Brown lipstick. He did that for me. He’s amazing.”

That was the start of Adopt-an-Eph, which Menking founded in 2004. As he explains on its website, the program “provides apolitical support to any Eph deployed in harm’s way. The support consists of letters, emails, birthday and holiday cards as well as packages of luxury items like good coffee, candy, cigars, baby wipes, jerky and magazines.

“We ask only two things of our adoptees,” he adds. “One, come home safe. And two, if your address changes, please let us know so we can keep sending you stuff.”

Menking locates deployed Ephs via the online alumni directory, colleagues and friends, and the Alumni Office. He then reaches out to ask what they would like, and he makes the information available for any other alumni who want to support what he calls “the Purple Military.”

Many in the Williams family have taken up the cause, including Ben Leary ’20, who served in the U.S. Navy for six years before coming to Williams. “Care packages that provide small creature comforts and a letter about something—anything—other than their current situation helps buoy morale, especially when there’s enough to share,” says Leary, a double major in political science and women’s, gender and sexuality studies. “The service member can spread good vibes around by throwing goodies across a barracks.”

Leary and other student veterans participating in Adopt-an-Eph recently sent a package to Rebecca Doucette ’95, who is serving with the 65th Field Artillery Brigade of the Utah Army National Guard. Currently deployed in the Middle East, Doucette writes, “One of the funny by-products of Adopt-an-Eph is that I get teased about purple cows by my colleagues, who had never heard of Williams before. I’ve taught them ‘The Mountains,’ and when I get mail, they sing it, using the words ‘purple cow’ over and over. Every package brings a welcome break into lightheartedness and smiles to all.”

Steph Berger ’11, a former surface warfare officer with the U.S. Navy, says Adopt-an-Eph brought her “tons of encouragement as a recent graduate. Throughout my three deployments, I would regularly get a large amount of mail. When shipmates commented on my ‘popularity,’ I was happy to brag about Williams’ great support network. Even if I didn’t know the sender, I still felt a personal connection to the ‘purple bubble’ that we all know and enjoy.”

Steph Berger, Williams Class of 2011, at right, aboard the USS Pearl Harbor.
In 2014, Menking sent a package to Steph Berger ’11 (right, in 2012) while she was deployed with U.S.S. Makin Island. The helicopter delivering the mail was unable to land on the ship, and the mail drop ended up in the ocean. Menking’s care package was recovered—soggy but intact—in what became known to the crew as “The Great Christmas Present Sea-Rescue of 2015.” Says Berger of Adopt-an-Eph: “It was a wonderful introduction to the Williams alumni community.“

Sharpe Jones agrees. “Those packages from Williams alumni were like the sun and a rainbow on the darkest night possible,” she says. “For people back home to extend themselves to me in that way was deeply heartwarming, and I feel forever beholden to them.”

To learn more about Adopt-an-Eph, email Stewart Menking ’79 ([email protected]).

—Julia Munemo