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Ray Duckler

Ray Duckler: Mother helps troops so son understands Christmas

 Mariah Gage holds her son, Alec Hersey, on a recent photo with Santa. Gage started a local effort to collect items for troops.

Mariah Gage holds her son, Alec Hersey, on a recent photo with Santa. Gage started a local effort to collect items for troops.

Mariah Gage has shoehorned a lot of life into 21 years.

She lost her father, got pregnant at 19, and lost her grandmother – and her 16-month-old son, Alec Hersey, has had respiratory problems that nearly killed him, ear problems that have forced him to learn sign language, pneumonia and, chances are, a neurological disorder that affects certain nerves in his body.

So how has this single mother from Barnstead reacted? Well, she finished 21∕2 years of college, works full time at Rymes Propane and now, through Facebook, is collecting goodies for our troops, care packages for those living so very far away during the holidays.

Some are based in Afghanistan, others on a ship in the middle of an ocean.

And maybe her son is learning more than anyone can imagine.

“He’s already a really

caring boy,” said Gage, who lives with her mother and 16-year-old brother while raising Alec. “Every single thing he gets he wants to share with everybody. If he picks up a blade of grass, he’ll try to hand it to someone as his way of sharing.”

Gage grew up in Barnstead, graduating from Prospect Mountain High, where she ran track and cross country, and painted sets for school plays. She also rode dirt bikes and fired a .22 rifle like Annie Oakley, placing high in national and international target competitions. The dirt bikes, the shooting and, it turns out, her value system came from her mother, Debra, and father, Wayne.

It was Wayne’s death in a motorcycle accident three summers ago that changed everything. He was leaving his father’s home, moving down the driveway, when he fell off and smacked his head on the concrete. His father saw the whole thing, and he says something happened before the accident.

“I believe it was an aneurysm,” said Gage’s mother, Debra, who’s worked for the state for 36 years. “There’s no proof, but he was leaving his dad’s house, he waved bye and went down the driveway and his father watched it. His dad said to me, ‘Deb, something happened, because he never hit the brakes and he never put his feet down.’ ”

Soon after, Wayne’s mother, Gage’s grandmother, died. Strangely, the family once again questioned the official cause of death, saying it was a broken heart, not complications from a broken hip. “She was very depressed about my dad dying,” Gage said.

Next, Alec was born, with an array of health problems, including what might be Charcot-Marie-Tooth, inherited from his father. The disease weakens muscle tissue, and only tests that have not been performed yet will show if Alec has the disorder. He visits his father on Mondays and spends the rest of his time in Barnstead.

His mother is focused on teaching him a value system she learned from her parents, a system that led to a job at Dunkin’ Donuts in high school to pay for her car. And Debra says Wayne reinforced that system through his death.

“I think she saw people coming around and offering me help and bringing us things,” said Debra. “For my kids to be 14 and 19 and to lose their father, to live through that, it’s life changing, and I think when they sat back and reflected, they saw all these people come and helping us. It was paying it forward.”

Her idea to help the military came easily, surfacing because so many of her friends have joined. Jeremy is in Afghanistan, Josh is heading to Iraq and Shawn came back a year ago and might go again.

So care packages, advertised on Facebook, destined for two Air Force bases in Afghanistan and a ship with 400 on board, clutter the family dining room, filled with stuff Gage has collected and bought herself.

There are snacks and cards and checkers and blankets and mittens and DVDs and toiletries. There is a taste of home, far from home, and an example for Alec to follow. Gage and her mother will tape the boxes shut on Friday night and ship them the next day.

“We’re just going to keep doing it every year, and each year Alec is going to get more and more involved in understanding that you can give to others and be happy,” Gage said. “He’s going to grow up like I did, that it’s not the amount of presents you get at the holidays that dictates your happiness, it’s how happy you make yourself by putting a smile on other people’s faces.”

Alec, apparently, is ahead of the game. “He’ll get a crayon, and he won’t hog it,” Gage said. “He’ll try to give it to anyone he can.”

To donate or learn about Gage’s program, visit Project Pay it Forward on Facebook at

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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You can find the public event on facebook. "Project Pay It Forward"

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