For his Eagle Scout project, Joel Berinstein, left, of Potomac of Troop 773 organized a donation of toiletry packages for veterans. Credit: Photos by Carla Morris

When Boy Scout Joel Berinstein of Potomac learned that VA hospitals and medical centers don’t provide toiletry items for their patients, he was dismayed.

He turned that dismay into action. He and some helpers assembled 304 toiletry care packages and dropped them off at the Washington, D.C., VA medical center to share with patients.

Each care package was filled with body wash, shampoo, conditioner, combs, tissues, deodorant, toothpaste and lotion. It was topped off with a handwritten card with notes of “thank you for your service” and “get well soon” on them.

Some packages had activity and puzzle booklets for patients with longer stays at the hospital.

VA hospitals do not provide any VA-funded toiletry items to patients and can only provide donated items. This has prompted some nonprofits to make hygiene and self-care kits for veterans.

“It is kind of a shame that these toiletries can’t really be provided for veterans that stay at the VA hospitals. … A lot of them aren’t as fortunate …,” Berinstein, 17, said. “I feel like it’s a valuable part that the community could play.”

Volunteers pack self-care boxes with items people bought from Joel Berinstein’s Amazon wish list.

Berinstein, of Troop 773, attends Winston Churchill High School.

All Scouts must organize, plan and lead a service project to become an Eagle Scout, the highest rank.

When Berinstein began thinking about what to do for his Eagle project, he was interested in giving back to war veterans, specifically Jewish war veterans at Arlington National Cemetery.

His late grandfather served in the Air Force during the Korean War. Berinstein was named after his grandfather.

“It just feels almost like, I guess, kind of a duty to try and honor who he was and what he did,” he said.

His mother, Diane Berinstein, described her son as a teenager with deep respect for those who served in the military and first responders.

“He has a deep-seated respect for all mankind, but you translate that to a deeper respect for those who put their life on the line,” she said.

Each self-care package included a handwritten note.

Berinstein was also inspired by Wreaths Across America, a nonprofit organization that sponsors a holiday wreath distribution at veteran cemeteries across the United States. But, he felt that Jewish war veterans were not being honored in the same way.

“Traditionally in Judaism, you’re not supposed to put flowers or, like, living items on graves. … Jewish graves are skipped over when they’re putting wreaths on the graves of veterans,” Berinstein said.

He brainstormed ideas of items to place on the gravestones of Jewish veterans for his Eagle project. But when COVID-19 hit, he needed to take a different approach.

When Berinstein contacted the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America about his project, the organization suggested contacting a nearby VA hospital about dropping off care packages of toiletry items.

Berinstein organized a care package assembly event at his synagogue, Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac.

A group that included six fellow Boy Scouts in his troop and other volunteers assembled enough care packages to fill up three cars. The assembly took about two and a half hours.

Boy Scout Joel Berinstein of Potomac, right, as he drops toiletry care packages at the Washington, D.C., VA medical center. VA employees Greg Elfstrom, left, and Lewis Eiland are with him. (submitted photo)

All of the items Berinstein and his volunteers packaged were donated through an Amazon wish list he created. In May and June, people bought items off the list, and they were shipped to Berinstein’s home.

The Amazon wish list allowed the community to be involved in the project. Scouts are not allowed to raise money for Eagle projects.

When Berinstein and his mother dropped off the care packages at the D.C. VA Medical Center, the employees who received them were “amazed by the sheer volume of boxes that came out of the car,” Diane Berinstein said.

“We spent several minutes talking about the need, and how so many of the veterans who come to receive care are not coming with a lot of resources, and are not in good health, and don’t have an extensive support network,” she said.

The Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center Public Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.

After distributing the packages, Berinstein said he felt grateful his Eagle project would help so many others.

“I’m just glad that I was able to do this and make a difference,” he said.