What do you do with 53 sacks of Idaho potatoes?

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

At an office several blocks from the White House, gifts for the former hostages are still pouring in. Thousands of letters and huge posters, quilts, souvenir jars of ash from Mt. St. Helens, bags of Idaho potatoes -- the endless flood has left the hostage families in a curious dilemma:

They are gratified by the recognition and support from Americans; but what will the tiny team of workers in this modest Washington office do with the growing mountain of goods? FLAG, the Family Liaison Action Group, will need months just to sort things out.

Volunteers are sorting the piles of mail down into cardboard boxes that line shelves and tables, each labeled with the name of a hostage. Already they're working on the second boxful since the hostages' release. Most of these letters have arrived addressed with little more than the name of a former hostage and "Washington, D.C." -- many clearly written by schoolchildren around the nation.

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Scattered around the walls and furniture of the reception room and side offices is an impressive array of signs, ribbons, huge posters, and other items that have accumulated in recent months. There is a giant Christmas card from the people who run a service station at the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas; it is signed by hundreds of local well-wishers. There are signature- covered posters of Uncle Sam, with the caption, "Khomeini, Let My People Go," compliments of Nino Alimonti, a New Yorker who traveled across the country to collect thousands of signatures. Also, a large quilt stitched meticulously in honor of the hostages by a Missouri seamstress and a sculpture of a blindfolded captive by an artist distressed by the ordeal.

Letters from kids are the least of FLAG's concern. Each writer will receive an appropriate form letter.

It's the packages arriving in quantities of 53 that pose logistical problems verging on the serious. FLAG is run by several family members, some volunteer workers, and only one paid staffer. It could be no easy task to deal with the offers of 53 American flags, 53 hemp bags of potatoes from the State of Idaho, 53 boxes of ash from Mt. St. Helens, and so on and so on.

The outpouring of gifts in such overabundance appears to reflect as much the needs of Americans as an expression of affection for the hostages. However, some FLAG staffers feel these energies might be channeled more constructively from here on out.

"The hostages and their families have been made aware of the national desire to express love and happiness that they're home," explains Mrs. Louisa Kennedy, spokeswoman for the families. "But at this stage I think we don't need any more physical fulfilment of this. Perhaps they could translate the happiness into donations to charitable organizations or hospitals in their own communities to help others."

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