At first, Christina Hill just wanted to do something to help a few local families who have military members deployed overseas.
The London, Ohio, resident and active duty member of the U.S. Army knows how difficult this time can be for the whole family, and just how important a local support system can be as well.
"I just wanted to be able to connect the families," she said. "People don't understand what it is like to be away or have your family member away. They don't understand how hard it is."
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What started as a simple idea just kept getting bigger and bigger, though. With the holidays coming late last year, she reached out to central Ohio organizations who might have been able to help provide Christmas gifts to a handful of such families in Madison County.
The USO was one of those organizations, and a few weeks later, they got back to Hill and put her in touch with the Blue Jackets. From there, a match seemed perfect -- Cam Atkinson, a noted supporter of military causes, and his family were looking to help a few families during the holiday season.
The result was that on Dec. 2, Atkinson, his wife Natalie and son Declan traveled to London for the city's annual Olde Fashioned Christmas celebration with gifts in tow. Four families from Madison County with servicemembers deployed overseas received not just a visit from the Atkinson family but a bushel of gifts to place under the tree for Christmas morning.
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"It was shocking," said London resident Amanda Hale, who has three kids and whose husband is in the Army and deployed overseas. "I didn't know about it, so I showed up and they came over and found me and told me he was there, and I actually cried. It was really awesome. It just felt like someone cared. It was awesome."
That was far from the only interaction with the Blue Jackets organization for those families. All four were invited to Nationwide Arena on Thursday night for the team's Military Appreciation Night game vs. Carolina. The families had a suite overlooking the ice for the festivities and then were invited to a meet and greet with Atkinson after the game.
"There's about 15 kids I believe that are coming, so hopefully they enjoy the game," Atkinson said before the contest, in which he had a goal and an assist in his return to the ice after missing nearly a month with an ankle sprain.
"For the most part, I think this is their first time coming to a game. It's always a perfect night to honor those families, and it goes a long way. Hopefully we get a win for them."
The Blue Jackets did just that, with Nick Foligno tallying the winning goal with 1:41 to play in the 3-2 triumph over the Hurricanes. But no matter what happened on the ice, the families in attendance seemed sure to have fun, with kids scurrying about the suite, enjoying food and beverage pregame, and having the opportunity to spend the night with the Blue Jackets.
Video: Military Night pres. by Elk + Elk
And when Atkinson did his part in the win, they couldn't help but notice.
"As soon as we got here, (the kids) were looking at all the guys and the were like, 'Is that him?'" Hale said. "Then they saw him and were like, 'There he is, that's Cam!' They do remember (his visit in December). That was a big moment for them."
Hill said she couldn't have imagined such a moment when she simply just set out to connect a few families in a time of stress and need.
"For myself, if I were to ever be away from my family, I would want some sort of local support system, and with all this, all these families are now connected," she said. "If they ever need help or have questions, now they can help each other, and that's what I wanted.
"I wasn't expecting Cam to come to London. I was blown away. I was crying afterward; everyone was crying. Any organization that will stop everything they're doing to help … I was blown away."