While “care package” has become part of the popular vernacular, the term is actually a registered trademark with an illustrious history far beyond boxes of home-baked cookies and ramen noodles sent by doting parents to their college-age children. A recent survey by Harris Poll found that while 84 percent of Americans have heard of “CARE Packages,” only 13 percent know about their origin 70 years ago when generous Americans sent life-saving food and supplies to Europeans starving in the wake of World War II.
More than a year after World War II concluded in Europe, the residents of Le Havre, France, continued to struggle for survival. Their homes remained leveled, their stomachs chronically empty.
On May 11, 1946, relief arrived from across the ocean as the cargo ship American Traveler steamed into the war-torn city’s harbor with a shipment of food—and hope. Aboard were 15,000 brown cardboard boxes paid for by the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe (CARE), which had been founded the previous year to bring humanitarian aid to millions starving in post-war Europe. These first “CARE Packages” contained everything from whole-milk powder and liver loaf to margarine and coffee. The contents of CARE Packages soon expanded to include soap, diapers, school supplies and medicine as well as fabric, thread and needles to allow recipients to make and mend clothes.
The initial CARE Packages consisted of surplus “10-in-1” food parcels—capable of providing one meal for 10 soldiers or food for one soldier for 10 days—no longer needed by the U.S. Army at the end of the war. Once the surplus was depleted, CARE began to assemble its own packages, thanks in large part to donations by American companies. At a cost of ten dollars, Americans could send the food donations to friends and families back in Europe. Soon, however, Americans began to donate provisions to those they didn’t even know—addressing boxes to “a hungry occupant of a thatched cottage” or “a school teacher in Germany.”
Renate Senter was one of those anonymous recipients of American generosity. Born in 1939, Senter knew nothing other than war while growing up in West Prussia. Then on a frigid winter night in 1945, a knock on the door warned that the Soviets were quickly advancing. With her father off fighting on the eastern front, the six-year-old girl fled to her grandparents’ home along with her mother, two sisters and only those meager possessions they could fit inside a baby carriage. “We had nothing, absolutely nothing,” Senter says.
A year after the war’s conclusion, Senter was a student at a school in West Germany, with a piece of chalk and a slate her only school supplies. One day, a Red Cross nurse arrived with CARE Packages for the students, and even though the moment occurred 70 years ago, the memories remain vivid in Senter’s mind. “It was maroon red with white ‘CARE’ letters on it. I opened it, and the first thing that hit me was this beautiful white paper that felt like silk, a pencil with an eraser, Colgate toothpaste and a toothbrush,” Senter says.
“I was so in awe and speechless at this white paper that I ran home with this package and said, ‘Look what the Americans did. The Americans sent this package,’” Senter says. For the next three years, she continued to receive CARE Packages from the United States filled with clothes and food. “It was so overwhelming that we received these packages. You have no idea how it changed our lives and outlook.”
Senter’s mother, who harbored no love for the United States after her parents were killed in an American air raid, cried when her daughter came home with her first CARE Package. “My mother changed her tune immediately. She was so grateful to America and would always write letters to CARE to thank them,” Senter says.
As the Cold War ignited, CARE Packages again came to the rescue. In response to the blockade of West Berlin by Soviet troops in 1948, the American airlift included 250,000 CARE Packages, more than half of all the humanitarian relief sent to the city. In 1950, President Harry Truman urged Americans to donate parcels of food, clothing and blankets to those left hungry and homeless in the wake of the Korean War. “Every CARE Package delivered to a family in Korea, in the name of American donors, is proof of democracy in action to help its fellow man,” Truman proclaimed.
The humanitarian organization expanded its geographic scope in the 1950s to include Asia and Latin America. Now known as the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere to reflect its worldwide mission, CARE remains one of the world’s largest humanitarian organizations. In 2015, CARE worked in more than 90 countries combating poverty and responding to natural disasters and humanitarian emergencies from war-ravaged Syria to famine-riddled Somalia.
CARE has refocused its efforts from sending packages to developing long-term sustainable programs, but the impact of the 100 million CARE Packages sent from Americans to people in need around the world continues to resonate. Senter was so moved by the gift-filled boxes that she received as a child that she vowed to live in America when she grew up. In 1960, she fulfilled that wish and immigrated to the United States, where she still lives today. “I’m very grateful to CARE for turning my life around and so happy in this country,” she says.