When Sergeant Renay Groves started Notes From Home, a collection of well wishes for Canadian troops in Afghanistan, she never knew how much the project would grow.
It started as a small homemade book of 3,000 messages and over four years has grown to 80,000 signatures. Groves, a scrapbook savvy lady, started the book as a response to citizen reactions. She found when she was walking around in uniform people would approach her and say thank you for her work and the work Canada is doing in Afghanistan. At the time, she hadn’t been to Afghanistan, so she told them she would send their message to the troops.
“My intention was simply to say thank you to the Canadian troops in Afghanistan,” said Groves who has since been to Afghanistan twice. “One night after my kids went to bed, I sat down on my bedroom floor and made a book, it was 11″x 17″ and about half an inch thick.”
Every Saturday she would go to her local grocery store in Barrhaven, a suburb of Ottawa, so people could sign the book. A turning point of the project happened when local Nepean-Carleton Member of Parliament Pierre Poilievre stopped by her table, introduced himself and said Prime Minister Stephen Harper needed to sign the book. He made a call and invited Groves to Parliament Hill the following Wednesday. She received permission, and the following Wednesday Groves, accompanied by Captain Grant Whittla, took the book to Parliament Hill.
“On Wednesday morning we are standing in caucus in front of the Newfoundland flag and the prime minister is signing this book,” said the proud Newfoundlander.
From this point, the project snowballed. Many people in Parliament signed the book.This caught the attention of then chief of defence staff General Rick Hillier and with his help the book travelled across Canada.
Groves visited almost every base and had citizens sign the book, which grew to 80,000 messages.
Whittla helped co-ordinate the trip. “It was phenomenal, it was something that needed to be done, hence why I backed it and why my boss backed it and we got Renay across Canada,” said Whittla. “To see the families and the kids with their handprints in this book, it’s amazing.”
Groves saw how much patriotism Canadians have and how supportive they are of the Afghanistan mission. “This uniform hasn’t always been favourable to wear and just to see how the children looked up to the uniform was brilliant,” said Groves. “Lots of children said they can’t wait to join the military because of the work we are doing in Afghanistan and because of our soldiers.”
Many stories accompany this unique book, along with well wishes. Groves has two books, one travelling across Canada and another overseas called Notes From Afghanistan.
Sadly, the book also has signatures from some of our fallen soldiers.
In 2007, Capt. Jeff Francis of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery was a big supporter of the project. Groves stopped by his parents’ house and traced the hand of this then seven-month-old son, Ry Francis. Pictures were taken and sent to Francis in theatre for Father’s Day. Francis signed the troop book and saw his son was in the other book. On July 6 that year, he paid the ultimate sacrifice.
“To know he actually saw that book before he died is huge, even just pictures of it. He knew his son was in that book,” said Groves. “If that book was never made for any other reason than that one situation, then it was meant to be.”
As per the original plan, Groves took the book with her to Afghanistan during her own tour of operations and was amazed by the support. Over 400 soldiers signed the book and some spent up to two hours looking for a loved one’s message.
“The look on their faces when they would find the message was worth more than anything I’ve ever been given,” she said.
This November Groves plans to donate the book to the Canadian War Museum. Along with the main book she is also donating three smaller books she wrote about the stories of Notes From Home. Each signature has a story behind it.
One of Groves’ most memorable stories happened in her home town of
St. John’s, Nfld. She took the book to the local children’s hospital and met four children in long-term care. One boy had military memorabilia plastered around his room. He was so proud to sign the book and his wish he could go to Afghanistan with the book, which couldn’t happen.
“On the way out the head nurse asked us where we were going next. I said Halifax and she said, ‘By the time your aircraft lands in Halifax, he won’t be with us anymore,’” said Groves, choking back tears. “That little boy helped me take that book to Afghanistan. His picture and story are in that book”.