Prince William County residents Jean and David Heard got into the care package business because they have two sons stationed in the Persian Gulf.

"We started with our sons and would send six or seven {extra} boxes. I bought in bulk {and} made extra peanut brittle . . . because there's {always} somebody that isn't getting anything," Jean Heard said. "It's something that has to be done, so we're doing it."

That effort led the Heards to found Operation Something From Home, an all-volunteer group that tries to pack and mail nearly 50 boxes a day to soldiers, sailors and airmen from all over the country.

Teachers, schoolchildren, spouses and parents of service people from all over Northern Virginia have also banded together to pack care packages and send letters to show their support.

In Loudoun County, parents of service people organized the Help From Home Fund, which concentrates its efforts on Loudoun County men and women now serving in the gulf. Volunteers met last week at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Leesburg to pack and mail 10 care packages for Loudoun County soldiers, said organizer Jim Hannigan, whose son is in the Marines.

The group also plans to put together a bulk shipment in mid-October that will include enough goods for 50 to 100 people, he said. The group has raised nearly $1,500 so far. Donations and the names of Virginia service people who need care packages may be sent to Route 2, Box 212, Lovettsville, Va. 22080.

Collecting and packing goodies for those in the Persian Gulf is more complicated than it sounds, organizers said.

The Heards' basement is piled high with cartons of toilet paper, sample-sized shampoo, Kool-Aid packets, granola bars, and stacks and stacks of mailing boxes waiting to be filled. Volunteers sit at four telephones, answering calls as they come in from around the country.

The Operation Something From Home volunteers have packed and sent out more than 300 care packages so far, but that is just the beginning. "We hope to reach every {soldier} by Thanksgiving . . . . We are starting our Christmas program already," David Heard said.

The sheer size of the effort has begun to create its own problems: A group from Alabama wants to donate a truckload of items, but doesn't have any way to ship it. The local stores don't carry enough hand-held pencil sharpeners, so the group is sending pre-sharpened pencils, and hoping the soldiers can make due with knives.

The Heards have also received a few crazy letters, including three or so mail-bomb threats, so Postal Service officials plan to conduct a seminar on dealing with suspicious parcels, said Postal Service spokesman Paul Giroux.

Soon the whole operation will move into new quarters. Paxton Van Lines has agreed to let the group use a 20,000-square-foot warehouse, complete with forklifts.

Operation Something From Home volunteers "desert-test" donations by locking samples in an airtight car with the sun beating down for three days before including items in the packages. Chapstick, for example, and most bars of soap melted, so the group now mails tubes of Vaseline and liquid soap instead. Chocolate, most types of gum, and foods that are not individually packaged by the manufacturer are all unacceptable, and military regulations prohibit religious material, pornography and pork products.

Each red, white and blue box comes filled with about 30 toiletry, food and entertainment items, preprinted greetings from the Heards and the government heads of Prince William, Manassas and Manassas Park, and a personal letter sent to the Heards by children and adults around the country.

Contributors can drop off items at Prince William and Manassas fire stations, call (703) 368-8759, or write Box 264, Manassas, Va. 22110.

Several Prince William County schools have also organized letter-writing campaigns, and one, Springwoods Elementary, has put together a banner emblazoned with all the names of friends and family members now stationed in the gulf.

"We have a lot of military families here," said fifth-grade teacher Patricia Kodatt. "One little girl's father left, and I had a hard time comforting her . . . . My husband is in the Air Force, and you have to wonder, 'Is he going to go next?' "

The efforts apparently are not going to waste.

The Heards recently received a letter from a paratrooper who wrote that the group's endeavor "just raises the motivation level of our soldiers . . . . We read your words, and we were basically raised from the dead."