HENLEY-ON-KLIP, South Africa (AP) - But she says her future philanthropy in Africa will support existing institutions instead of spending millions to start from scratch...

Wearing a green, camouflage ball cap, Myraline Morris Whitaker looks like a drill sergeant as she leads a group of volunteers putting together care packages for U.S. soldiers serving overseas.

“Excuse me, you gotta put one of these in all of the boxes,” she says to one volunteer.

But Whitaker is not an officer, nor has she ever served in the military. She’s a hospitality executive who in 2007, founded the Sister Soldier Project – an organization that sends hair care products to female troops of color, who often face challenges maintaining their ethnic hair in desert areas like Iraq and Afghanistan.

The California resident says she got the idea after talking to one of her Caucasian friends who served as a U.S. Marine 20 years ago. The woman told Whitaker she always had to leave the room whenever her African-American roommate would style her hair with what’s known as a “hot comb.”

Sister-Soldier1.JPG

“It was smelly. She didn’t understand what that smell was,” says Whitaker. “And that stuck in my head. I could not get that out of my head and trying to figure out what are they doing today.”

Whitaker researched the Internet and discovered some of the most requested items from African-American military women serving overseas were black hair care products.

Answering the call, Whitaker hosted a “packing party,” where her fellow book club members helped her send out unused hair products they found in their bathroom cabinets. The idea expanded, and Whitaker now hosts packing parties all over the country, helping an estimated 2, 500 soldiers and counting.

On March 15, the organization held one of its largest events at Morgan State University in Maryland, where volunteers prepared 200 hair care packages. In addition to products like relaxer kits and shampoos donated from black hair care companies, the boxes include women’s magazines, toiletries and letters from local elementary students.

“As a future officer potentially going to Afghanistan myself, I think this is a great opportunity for me to give back to those who are serving before me, and then once I go, I know someone will be doing this for me,” says Tyeshe Morgan, an Army ROTC student at Morgan State.

The volunteers’ efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. In 2009, the Congressional Black Caucus honored the Sister Soldier Project with the Veterans Braintrust Award – given to individuals or groups that support America’s military veterans. And every day, Whitaker receives emails and letters from soldiers expressing their gratitude.

“I just want to express my personal appreciation for the recent package that you had sent. You certainly did not have to go to such trouble, but I am glad that you did! Your efforts throughout my deployment have been a tremendous morale boost for myself and my soldiers. I will NEVER forget what you have done for us,” wrote Lisa Taylor, a soldier serving in Iraq.

For Whitaker, it’s that kind of appreciation that pushes her to be all that she can be.

“These [women] have something special in their DNA that says ‘I’m going to go out and be of service to this country.’ And I want to help them do their job better… and feel better.”