Northern Illinois University

Northern Today

University of Alabama care package
A care package came to the NIU Office of Public Affairs from the University of Alabama Media Relations Office.

Volunteer makes ribbons
A volunteer makes ribbons at the Campus Life Building.


Boxes of welcome surprises arrive
at NIU Office of Public Affairs

March 3, 2008

by Mark McGowan

The first cardboard box arrived Saturday morning, Feb. 16, the only clue to its origins a packing label with an unfamiliar return address in Alabama.

Inside, buried amidst piles of packing peanuts, was a treasure trove of simple survival supplies introduced in a handwritten card as “a practical token” of support during difficult times.

Sugar-free Ricola. Visene. Tums. Neosporin. Minty-fresh liquid gel Crest tooth paste and toothbrushes. Band-Aids. ChapStick. Kleenex moist wipes. Ibuprofen tablets.

To eat, there was peanut butter, Chips Ahoy, peanut butter crackers, raisins, peanut butter energy bars, Go-Tarts, Pringles, Ritz crackers, Lorna Doones, coffee grounds and handfuls of bags of Tazo Awake black tea.

And there were tablets of note paper, sticky notes, pens and even can cozies, all emblazoned with a variety of the proud logos of the University of Alabama. A final pull on the Styrofoam vault to remove it from the packing peanuts revealed a Crimson Tide cooler, the kind perfect for tailgate parties and picnics.

“We haven’t gone through anything as traumatic as what your university is going through, but we certainly can, as PR professionals, empathize with you,” said Suzanne Dowling, communications specialist in the Office of Media Relations at Alabama.

“Our office is, like yours, the crisis communications hub. We’ve gone through planning and we knew, in a drill, what we’ve like to do and what we like to have,” Dowling added. “A lot of it was just trying to put ourselves into your shoes and to know what we would want.”

They made a shopping list before Dowling and a colleague headed to their local Target.

“We had sort of a list, but we just started pulling stuff off the shelves: ‘Oh, that would be good. That would be good.’ In our office, we have a few things like crackers and Cup-a-Soup, but it was just more of a brainstorming thing: ‘What could they use if they couldn’t get away?’ ”

On Tuesday, Feb. 19, a pair of enormous boxes arrived, filled with 120 spools of red and black ribbon of two different widths. The sender: Berwick Offray, the world’s largest manufacturer and distributor of decorative ribbons and bows.

The package included neither a letter of explanation – though none was needed, of course – nor a bill.

Public Affairs staff members transported the ribbon to the Campus Life Building, where volunteers had set up tables to create 30,000 ribbons. By the end of work Wednesday, 17,000 ribbons had been made with donations from local merchants and with the gift from Berwick.

A day or two later? “It’s already gone,” said Becky Harlow, assistant director for the Parents’ Association and Volunteerism, part of Student Involvement and Leadership Development.

Looking back, Harlow said, the contribution from Berwick proved more than unexpected: It was necessary. “We thought we were pretty much set, but that shipment of ribbon actually came just as we were running low,” Harlow said.

“It’s outstanding. It’s touching,” she said. “We’ve been knocking ourselves out all over town trying to get ribbon, and here these people just send it, and that’s wonderful.”