For first-grader Patrick Bosse, sending care packages to the U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia was not just a school project. It also was a way to reach out to his father, Cmdr. Michael Bosse, who has been stationed in the Persian Gulf since August.

Last Thursday, Patrick and his classmates at Centennial Elementary School in Ellicott City spent the day packing oatmeal cookies, magazines and crossword puzzles into boxes headed for the Gulf. The students included stationery, pencils, Frisbees, Nerf balls and anything else they thought would help the soldiers pass the time.

"There's nothing to do over there but get hot, and so they're probably real bored," fourth- grader Sarah Taylor said.

On the cafeteria floor, which was littered with tape, wrapping paper and gifts, sat Donna Parsons and her 5-year-old daughter, Blair, trying to shut a box stuffed with cookies baked the day before.

"I don't have anyone over there, but if I did, I would hope someone would do this for them," Parsons said. "We must have baked at least 10 dozen, right, Blair?"

But Blair chose to leave the counting to her mother and offered instead a description of the land where her cookies would soon be going: "Saudia Arabia is like a big desert with lots of sand and cactuses."

The cookies were baked according to a special recipe issued by the military to ensure they did not contain ingredients such as chocolate, margarine or peanut butter that would melt in Saudi Arabia's ovenlike temperatures.

The idea of sending care packages to the armed forces came up a month ago after the school's Human Relations Committee, composed of teachers, decided to have students in the third and fifth grades write letters to soldiers in the Gulf.

The idea became popular, and soon all 700 students at the school were divided into five teams responsible for writing letters and bringing in items to send overseas.

Centennial's assistant principal, Pam Johnson, said the teachers also were able to incorporate the theme of the project into social studies and English classes.

"Our school is very aware of current events. And this project has given the students a rewarding experience of learning to help others," Johnson sid.

The care packages and the larger issue of the U.S. presence in the Gulf served as the catalyst for a lively debate among fourth-graders writing their letters in the school's library.

"Our soldiers are there because of the oil thingamajig," Sean Le Donne said.

"We're trying to defend a country that has so much oil and another country is trying to take over it," offered Erika Danna.

"We're like a world police to every country," Donald Swan said. "We're trying to police them not to have wars."

"If we don't do this, the price of oil is going to keep going up," Soo-Ei Sweeney predicted.

Later that afternoon, the students marched to the front of the school to deposit their letters into two mail trucks -- waiting courtesy of the Ellicott City Post Office, which has volunteered to mail the letters to Saudi Arabia.

Woodward & Lothrop Co., which has offered to ship items to soldiers in the Gulf for free, will pay to send the students' gift boxes.

"It's just our part in helping out, especially now during the holiday season," said a company spokesman, who estimated that the department store chain has mailed more than 750 care packages from the Washington and Philadelphia areas.

Meanwhile, Patrick Bosse said he is certain that his father, an orthopedic surgeon at Bethesda Naval Hospital now working aboard the medical ship USNS Comfort, will appreciate Centennial's efforts.

"The cookies and stuff will make him feel good," he said.

That day, Patrick was sporting a flight jacket decorated with military patches sent to him by his father. Cmdr. Bosse had sewn the patches on the sleeves of the jacket for Patrick and built model airplanes for him and his older brothers.

Back in the cafeteria, on a box ready for shipping, rested a handmade card written in red and green crayon: "To Any Service Member: Hi, say hello to Patrick's dad. Craig."