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RISMEDIA, August 18, 2010—(MCT)—All Kelsey Murrell wanted was a meal with her mom, a brief break from her University of Kansas sophomore stress. She was looking for dinner out and coffee — two loves they share — in her hometown, Kearney, Mo.

But the 45-minute drive was too much for Murrell last October; she had studying and work to do at her dorm. So she stayed in Lawrence, Kan. As the resident assistant of her dorm, she worked the front desk, where care packages frequently came in. Then one day, a small box arrived with her name.

Its contents — a mug, some coffee and a note — couldn’t have been more perfect, Murrell said. The mug said coffee across it in different languages, a longtime interest of hers. The note, along with loving words from the mom she missed, contained cash and instructions for her to treat herself at any restaurant.

Through her job, Murrell has seen mailed gifts of all types — good and bad — greet students. But thoughtful, personal presents have been the biggest hits.

“Anything you can do to personalize it, like if you know your student’s favorite candy or favorite something, that’s always a good thing to send,” Murrell said. “During finals week, my mom has sent me highlighters in hopes that I would be studying … tea if I’ve been sick, Tylenol.”

Frankie Minor, director of residential life at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said parents have a wide range of options when giving their kids care packages. They can even place online orders for generic care packages from companies such as On Campus Marketing.

We asked Murrell and Minor for tips on packing the perfect mail room surprise.

Students always like food, especially in the form of cookies.

“They really prefer the homemade ones because some time and energy and thought was put in it,” Minor said.

Send care packages as often as possible, but especially the weeks before midterms and finals.

For special occasions, send a plant instead of flowers. It’s a similar but more permanent reminder to students that their families love and think about them.

“You want it to be something hardy,” Minor said. “Students aren’t always the best caretakers.”

Frequent small gifts are better than a few big ones. And students like presents that are practical.

“Anything that can be useful,” Murrell said. “If they’re running out of something, mascara, any little thing,”

When possible, have everyone in the family send something.

“One of the things students often talk about is when they get something from a little brother or sister — a card, a crayon drawing — because they really miss their families,” Minor said. “It reassures the students that their families have not forgotten.”

To make the package meaningful, take the time to pick out its contents.

“They probably enjoy them a little more when some time and energy is put into it,” Minor said, “rather than just clicking and buying.”

(c) 2010, The Kansas City Star.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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