When Diane and Roger Ahrens started Operation Sweettooth in 2004, they thought they would be sending cookies to U. S. military men and women only a few years. The war in Afghanistan had started, but they thought it would be short.
The two Marine veterans who own the Piece-A-Cake Bakery in East Dundee began the project to ensure troops knew they were not forgotten. The packages of homemade sugar cookies and Rice Krispies Treats the soldiers received in the mail and shared with their comrades gave the fighting men and women something to look forward to: a tasty message from home.
Thirteen years and more than 14 tons of treats later, the North River Street bakers are still accepting orders and sending boxes and boxes of cookies even though the conflict is not in the daily headlines.
"I've always said, 'I won't stop until they all come home,'" Diane said. "I'll keep sending them as long as I can."
Afghanistan is not the only destination for the cookies. Other boxes are bound to troops in Kuwait, Honduras, Bosnia, Japan and South Korea. Families of the soldiers pay the $120 shipping fee. The Ahrenses pay for the ingredients and their employees' wages to mix and bake them.
The ingredients alone cost the couple $300 a month. The wages are not as much since area Boy and Girl Scout troops have been invited to decorate and individually wrap the cookies.
"We've only been working with the Scout troops recently," Diane said. "It's a nice teaching opportunity. They learn community service and patriotism. Some of them have even earned (Scout) badges. I encourage the Scouts to write short notes to the receivers, thanking them for their service."
Area high school students have also helped her wrap the cookies.
They learn hard work, also. Each box sent contains 100 cookies and treats. Every order consists of six boxes.
So far, Girls Scout troops from Hampshire and Pingree Grove have had cookie packing parties. Soldiers have even responded to the letters with thank-you notes.
"I like seeing (Operation Sweettooth) evolve this way. I would like to see it turn into more of a community event. I never thought it would be going this long," she said.
Besides being the driving force behind the project and a baker, Diane is president of the VFW Post 2298 Auxiliary in West Dundee. When the soldiers' family members order the cookies, she does not charge them for the ingredients or the labor it takes to bake them.
In the weeks before the winter holidays, orders increase and dozens of boxes are sent, she said. Operation Sweettooth is a year-round project and does not stop at Christmas.
To ease some of the financial burden, she has started fundraising projects through the auxiliary.
She's not complaining, though. She has vowed to keep sending the treats to the soldiers because she knows the excitement they have when receiving packages from the states.
"It makes them feel they are not forgotten. People appreciate the sacrifices they are making by being away from their families to serve their country," she said.
For information about Operation Sweettooth, call Diane at (224) 805-1220.