We are invited to remember that everyone deserves to be seen and cared for, creating space for our hearts to perhaps soften around the difficult realities that often divide and separate us.
Here in our feature “Grateful Changemakers,” we celebrate programs and projects that serve as beacons of gratefulness. These efforts elevate the values of grateful living and illuminate their potential to transform both individuals and communities. Join us in appreciating the inspiring and catalyzing contribution these Changemakers offer to shaping a more grateful world.
On Memorial Day, we honor those who have died while serving. We hope that by lifting up the work of those who continue to support first responder and military services, we respectfully honor the memory of those who have passed.
Every year, Operation Gratitude sends 300,000+ individually addressed Care Packages to military personnel, their children left behind, first responders, veterans, “Wounded Heroes,” and their caregivers. Filled with items donated by people in the United States (U.S.) and service-friendly companies who want to express their support, the Care Packages have served as the foundation for an organization working to bridge the civilian-service divide.
With an emphasis on service, Operation Gratitude helps remind us of the human beings behind war and conflict. Through collection drives, letter writing campaigns, craft projects, and Care Package assembly events, Operation Gratitude provides civilians anywhere in the U.S. who feel moved to say “Thank You” with ways to do so. Kevin Schmiegel, CEO of Operation Gratitude, tells us more about how this nonprofit lifts up the values of service through gratefulness. We are invited to remember that everyone deserves to be seen and cared for, creating space for our hearts to perhaps soften around the difficult realities that often divide and separate us.
What sparked the founding/creation of Operation Gratitude?
The horrific acts of 9/11 struck a chord deep inside Operation Gratitude’s founder Carolyn Blashek, a native New Yorker. Like many Americans, she felt compelled to act. Following several unsuccessful attempts to enlist in the military, this “soccer-mom” from Encino, California began volunteering at the military lounge in Los Angeles International Airport. The defining moment and catalyst for what would become Operation Gratitude’s mission “to say thank you to all who serve” came when she met a soldier who was returning to the “War Zone.” He had been on emergency leave to bury his mother, his wife had left him, and his only child had died as an infant. He had no one in his life. He said to her, “I’m going back over there, and I don’t think I’ll make it back this time, but it doesn’t matter because no one would even care.” Carolyn cared, and she knew countless Americans did too. Operation Gratitude was born that night. Carolyn decided no one should feel that way, so to show her love, appreciation, and respect, she began sending care packages to deployed service men and women overseas. What started as a grassroots movement from her living room now encompasses hundreds of thousands of individuals, groups, and businesses nationwide who donate items, raise funds, write personal letters to the troops, and contribute handmade items that have gone into more than 2.3 million signature Operation Gratitude Care Packages that have been delivered all across the globe.
How does Operation Gratitude fill a need for the people it serves and society as a whole?
Much of the critical work done by military personnel and first responders is unseen and often underappreciated.
For example, in a recent email we received, a local Washington, D.C. police officer said, “In this day and age we work in an environment where we seldom can do right and are rarely thanked for anything. I sincerely appreciate when someone takes the time to acknowledge our efforts.” Operation Gratitude is fulfilling a desire that everyone has to be seen and appreciated. Those who choose to serve do not necessarily look for appreciation, but I have to believe — based on the notes, emails, letters and phone calls I receive — that when they are seen and validated, it gives them a boost to keep going.
Here’s another recent example from a Deployed Service Member:
I am J. M., the Officer in Charge of a contingent of Sailors assigned to Coastal Riverine Squadron Two, currently forward deployed to Rota Spain. On Friday every single one of my 42 Sailors received a care package from your organization. I can tell you for the majority of my Sailors this is their first time ever being deployed, and the looks on their faces when our mail clerk arrived with the goods was priceless. I have been deployed 10 times over the last 19 years, and it never ceases to amaze me the goodwill of fine Americans that take their time, effort, and money to look out for us while we are overseas. It is a giant boost to morale and re-invigorates our spirit.
Our Care Packages fill practical needs as well: a warm scarf for the cold desert nights; beanie babies and candy to bring smiles to local children in war-torn areas, who then return the friendship by informing our troops about how to safely navigate through bomb-riddled areas; “Hero Wipes” to cleanse away the harmful, cancerous toxins our firefighters are exposed to; card games to share camaraderie; and many other useful items and pass the long nights on deployment.
It also fills a need for countless people across the U.S. who want to express appreciation to those who serve but don’t know how. Operation Gratitude provides “the how” in a simple, tangible way – and although the vehicle for gratitude is simple, the impact is profound.
How do you see Operation Gratitude as embodying/being related to gratefulness?
Gratefulness is the foundation of Operation Gratitude’s mission. However, thanking all those who serve is just one side of the equation. The other is creating opportunities for people to show their appreciation and respect for those who serve through volunteerism and simple acts of gratitude. Over the past year alone, we have inspired more than 791,000 volunteers, donors, and supporters to contribute their time, talent, and financial resources to our cause. In return, recipients of our Care Packages routinely send emails and letters of thanks, which inspire our supporters to do even more. One of our employees has aptly dubbed this “the cycle of gratitude.”
How does Operation Gratitude inspire gratefulness and related actions (love, kindness, compassion, etc.)?
At the beginning of the year, Operation Gratitude announced its Make Every Minute Count campaign with a goal of sending 525,600 Care Packages in 2019 — one for every minute of the year. When I see that number, it’s hard not to think of the song “Seasons of Love” from the musical Rent. The lyrics of that song invite the listener to consider how they will measure their year. We measure our year in Care Packages, in smiles, in scarves knitted, in letters written, in cuddly bears delivered to children of deployed troops, in handshakes and hugs. What do all of these things have in common? Love, appreciation, and respect. Those who volunteer with us want to demonstrate in a tangible way the genuine love they have for those who willingly sacrifice of themselves to serve.
Our number one priority is the direct delivery of our Care Packages. These direct deliveries bring communities together, forging strong bonds between our volunteers and those who serve them from afar, those serving right here at home, and the families of those who serve. The exchange of the Care Package, a simple handshake or a hug, and a “thank you” initiates the conversation. These conversations forge strong bonds that develop into a shared understanding that will ultimately lead to a national dialogue to address the need for an enduring and existential commitment to the men and women who willingly serve in harm’s way for the greater good. It’s so much more than a Care Package — it is a conduit, an ice breaker for those who feel grateful to go beyond “saying thank you for your service.” By forging these strong bonds we remind all those who serve how much we all appreciate and value their commitment to continue that service.
What inspires people to volunteer in Operation Gratitude? How are heroes selected for the Operation Gratitude’s offerings?
The most touching stories of how volunteers find Operation Gratitude are those that come through a personal connection. Much like Carolyn’s unforgettable experience in 2003 with the soldier at Los Angeles International Airport, many of Operation Gratitude’s volunteers have their own unique defining moment. It often comes from a family member, friend, or acquaintance whose service has touched their heart in a special way. They want to do something to show their support, but many don’t know how.
Thanks to Carolyn and the millions of volunteers, donors, and supporters she has inspired the past 16 years, there are countless ways to contribute to Operation Gratitude’s mission. Dozens of local volunteers come daily to our headquarters in Chatsworth, California to receive and sort donations, write and screen “letters to the troops,” make paracord bracelets, and stuff “battalion buddies” (our signature bears which are given to children of deployed service members to help them cope with deployments). We hold monthly Assembly Days where close to 1,000 volunteers join forces on a Saturday or Sunday for three to four hours to assemble 15,000 – 20,000 Care Packages. And now throughout the year, our network of volunteers across the U.S. come together at large scale off-site service projects in places like Jacksonville, Florida and San Antonio, Texas, and Washington, D.C., to assemble Care Packages to show their gratitude, love, and admiration.
Anyone can request a Care Package for their military, veteran, or first responder hero. It is a simple process through our website. Once our staff validates the request, we fulfill the request during one of our assembly events, then we ship the Care Package off to those serving far from home or deliver them directly to those serving in our local communities. As long as we continue to receive donated items, our volunteers will continue to produce Care Packages. People are often surprised that when they request a Care Package for a friend or family member, they receive a personal email or phone call from an Operation Gratitude staff member who not only responds with a resounding “yes” to their request, but also asks them for the names of others they serve alongside to send them Care Packages as well.
What is the lasting impact of Operation Gratitude?
Long after the last soldier has returned from war (soon, we pray), Operation Gratitude will continue to provide tangible ways to serve through volunteer service projects, acts of gratitude, and meaningful engagements in communities nationwide. The need to sustain this effort is rooted in a national imperative to ensure that we support those who volunteer for the military, that first responders willingly and faithfully continue to protect and serve our communities at home, and that those who have served are forever remembered for their contributions and sacrifices.
As an example, I had the privilege of accompanying a group of school-age children to a direct delivery of candy to local police and fire stations in Fort Worth, TX. I wish everyone could see the smiles on these kids’ faces as they met these service-members. Because of those deliveries, there may be a child who will someday become a police officer or firefighter. As another example, a soldier who was deployed took a moment to email the woman who made the scarf that he received in his Care Package. A relationship grew from that, they are in touch regularly, and he even calls her “mom.” Operation Gratitude’s lasting legacy will be the relationships we help cultivate when eager citizens are presented with a way to connect in a meaningful way with those who have devoted themselves to service.
What are some of the common barriers and obstacles that arise for Operation Gratitude? How are they addressed?
We want every single member of the military and first responder to receive one of our signature Care Packages. And, we want every single person in the U.S. who feels so moved to have the opportunity to contribute in some way to our Care Packages. With a vision like that, obviously there will be obstacles we must overcome — the first being the number of hours in a day. Every additional volunteer who joins our movement adds minutes and hours to help us Make Every Minute Count.
Another challenge is having enough products and individual items to fill the Care Packages, especially our “handmade with love” scarves and hats, paracord bracelets, and letters. We are so fortunate to have a select group of committed corporate partners and hundreds of thousands across the country who believe in our mission and are willing to give to this cause. But, we need more support to fill more than a half million Care Packages with 15 million items. As more people learn about Operation Gratitude, we hope that they too will be inspired to get involved — to request Care Packages and to donate their time, talent, and treasure to fill them. We have opportunities for all to contribute: We welcome everyone from the 94-year-old spouse of a World War II veteran who comes everyday to sort donated items to the 8-year-old student and her 2nd grade class who writes letters to the troops to thank all those who serve.
How does Operation Gratitude plan to grow?
Operation Gratitude’s growth will fall on the shoulders of our program directors who come from the communities they serve and who live and breathe their challenges and sacrifices. We hired a caregiver of a U.S. Army veteran to grow our “Wounded Hero” and Caregiver Program, an LAPD spouse to expand our efforts for first responders, and a Navy spouse to refine our Military Families Program. We are also hiring veterans to be regional directors and expand the grassroots movement started by our founder Carolyn Blashek 16 years ago. As ambassadors and the “faces” of Operation Gratitude, they will bring together members of the community, organize direct deliveries of our Care Packages, and visit local schools and volunteer organizations to thank them personally for their contributions. This allows us to grow in an organic way, reaching more individuals and facilitating more meaningful engagements between service-members and civilians who wish to express their gratitude.
What inspires you personally about this work? What inspires you to continue growing this project?
For inspiration I need to look no further than my inbox. By far, the best part of my day is reading emails from our Care Package recipients: the Jacksonville police officer who was in an hours-long stand-down with a suicidal criminal and told me how he used each of the items in his Care Pouch to keep himself going during that grueling process; the unit who sent me joy-filled photos of deployed soldiers getting their Operation Gratitude Care Packages at 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve; a caregiver for a “Wounded Hero” who wrote with tears of gratitude because she felt “seen” for the first time in years; my staff sharing a video of military children being surprised by a “battalion buddies” delivery as their parents were getting ready to deploy; a knitter whose painful arthritic hands feel relief by knitting and whose mind is calmed by thinking of the person who will receive the scarf she is creating with love. Every single day I receive at least one message of how Operation Gratitude has helped someone, often in an unexpected way, and THAT is my inspiration.
How does gratefulness inspire you to make change in the world? How does gratefulness inspire everyone who volunteers for and gives to Operation Gratitude?
In 2018 alone 791,000 grateful citizens hosted collection drives, wrote letters of support, made paracord bracelets, and knitted scarves. When I think about that, it seems to me that their gratefulness leads to a groundswell of appreciation across the U.S. that is both contagious and exciting. And it all starts with one simple goal — to say “thank you to all who serve.”
If you could encapsulate one message for civilians and service members alike, what would that be?
We’re all called to serve in different ways — this is a message from one of the Jesuit fathers at my college many years ago, and it has served as a guidepost for me ever since. When I think about this in the context of Operation Gratitude, some are called to active duty military service, some are called to write letters, make scarves, stuff teddy bears, donate money, fight fires, tell others about Operation Gratitude, or whatever moves them to make a difference and give back. There is a way for all of us to serve in our homes, our places of work, with this organization, and more broadly within our communities. We’re all called to serve in different ways, and when we each take the time to hear and honor that calling, then we will change the world.
If Operation Gratitude could share one message about living gratefully, what would it be?
It is never too late to say thank you. I have met with and received letters from many veterans who tell me that the Operation Gratitude Care Package and the letters and thoughtful gifts inside represent the first time they were ever thanked for their service. That’s hard to believe in a post-9/11 era when “thank you for your service” is a common phrase, but it is true, and it is one of the many things I love about this organization. It is NEVER too late to say thank you and you never know what your show of appreciation will lead to as the “cycle of gratitude” continues.
To read more about the inspiring work of Operation Gratitude, visit the website: Operationgratitude.com
To learn about other Grateful Changemakers, visit: Grateful Changemakers
Do you know of a project/program that elevates the values of grateful living? If so, we invite you to nominate them for our Grateful Changemaker article series.