As Kool Smiles gears up for the 6th annual Operation Troop Treats, we sat down with Operation Gratitude founder Carolyn Blashek to talk about her organization and its impact. Grab a tissue (you’ll want one!) and then head over to Operation Gratitude to learn how you can support their efforts to say “Thank You” to all who serve our country.
Tell us a little about Operation Gratitude. What does the organization do?
Operation Gratitude is a 501 (c) (3) organization that lifts spirits and meets the evolving needs of the U.S. Military and First Responder communities and provides volunteer opportunities for Americans to say “Thank You” to all who serve our nation.
Every year, Operation Gratitude volunteers send 250,000+ individually addressed care packages to U.S. Troops deployed overseas, to their children at home, and to First Responders, New Recruits, Veterans, Wounded Heroes and their Care Givers. Each package contains food, hygiene products, entertainment and handmade items, as well as personal letters of support.
How did you come up with the idea for Operation Gratitude? When and why was the organization founded?
After 9-11, I felt driven to do my part in the war on terror. Although I was 46 at the time, my first thought was to join the Military. The next day I went to all the local Recruiting stations but quickly found out I was too old for duty (i.e. I was rejected by all the branches!), so decided I needed to show my appreciation and support to the men and women in the Military who would bear the brunt of the conflict. In December 2001, I started volunteering weekly at the military lounge in the Los Angeles airport.
One day in March 2003, I was alone in the facility. A soldier came in and asked to meet with a chaplain; none were available so he spoke to me. He told me he was on leave from a “war zone” to bury his mother, his wife had left him and his only child had died as an infant–he had no one else in his life.
He said to me: “I’m going back over there and for the first time in my 20-year career, I don’t think I’ll make it back, but it really doesn’t matter because no one would even care.”
I was devastated.
After he left, I fell apart. I had learned that people in the Military were willing to die for the guy on their left or on their right. I wondered though, what would give someone the will and strength to survive in those conditions. From that conversation, I began to realize that when bullets are flying, it’s critical for troops to know that someone at home cares about them as an individual. So then I wondered–how do I do that?
When my children were young, they went to sleep-away camp for two months every summer. I wrote to them every day, and once a week, I’d send care packages with reminders of home so they knew I was thinking about them. I decided that’s what I would do for the troops! That night, Operation Gratitude was born!
What do you think the care packages mean to deployed Service Members and their families?
The hallmark of Operation Gratitude Care Packages has always been that each one is personally addressed to an individual service member. This customization lets the recipient know that he or she is acknowledged, respected and remembered as an individual serving our country. One of the most meaningful letters I have received was from a Soldier who wrote: “Want to know what really grabbed me when I got my package? It was addressed to me. My name was on the box. It wasn’t just a box. It was my box. I wasn’t just any soldier, I was somebody, I am somebody.”
What kinds of items are included in the care packages? How do you decide what to send?
We send an assortment of items, including non-perishable snack foods, entertainment items (such as DVDs, books, magazines, decks of cards, comics), personal care products (lotion, lip balm, tissues, wipes, razors, sunscreen, dental products), personal letters of appreciation and of course: Halloween Candy!
Several of our volunteers and Staff members are recent Veterans and suggest to us what items are most useful and desired. We make an effort to receive those items from our individual and corporate donors.
How is the candy collected through Operation Troop Treats used by Service Members?
The feedback from the troops is tremendous! The candy seems to impact them, and is used by them, in several ways:
- Halloween candy reminds the troops of home and the great traditions we celebrate at home–all of which they are protecting by serving in the Military.
- Halloween candy is fun! Every service member has their favorites–and we send handfuls and handfuls in every package–to be sure that they will have a smile when they find their favorites. They also have fun swapping candy with their comrades so that everyone gets their own personal favorite.
- Many service members give candy out to the children in the local communities they patrol, as part of the “winning hearts and minds” campaign. On many occasions, the children and/or their families have then told the Americans where bombs and bad guys were hidden. So, the troops have written: “You are not just putting smiles on our faces, you are saving our lives. “
Why are community outreach programs like Operation Troop Treats important?
We strive to provide Americans of all ages, anywhere in the country, a way to express their thanks to all who serve. The Operation Troop Treats Halloween Candy program is a perfect avenue for children to learn about patriotism and service, and also to donate their “hard-earned candy” to their heroes in an active and meaningful way.
What is your favorite kind of Halloween candy?
Where can people learn more about Operation Gratitude? Besides donating candy through Operation Troop Treats, how can people get involved with your organization?
Operation Gratitude is headquartered in Southern California, but people anywhere in the country can participate in a number of fun and hands-on ways, such as:
- Organize Collection Drives for needed items
- Make Para cord Survival Bracelets
- Knit or Crochet Scarves
- Collect and donate Beanie Babies or “Cents 4 Service”
- Write Letters
To learn more about these activities and others, please visit our website at www.OperationGratitude.com