Every year at Christmas my kids are bombarded with store advertisements and commercials. Though I can't do much about the marketing machine, I can counterbalance the marketing monster by encouraging my children to do charitable deeds. In the past, we've delivered meals around downtown to homeless people, the kids popping homemade cards into each bag. They work around the house to make a few dollars to send to poor families in Haiti and buy Christmas gifts to send to an orphanage in Tijuana. This year I decided the Kellys would send Christmas cheer to soldiers away from home during the holidays.
My search led me to Carolyn Blashek, founder of Operation Gratitude.
"After September 11th, I tried to join the military myself, but I was way too old," explained Blashek. "Still, I wanted in some way to show support for the military, but I discovered there are very few ways of doing that as a civilian. I started volunteering at our local USO, and one day I met a soldier who was going back over to the war zone. He said to me, 'You know, I just buried my mother, my wife left me years ago, and my only child died as an infant. I really have nobody, and I'm going back over there. I don't think I'll make it back this time, but it really doesn't matter because nobody would even notice.' That really got to me. And I started thinking, what is it that gives somebody the courage and the strength to get through the horrors of war. It occurred to me that it is really a belief that someone cares about them and wants them to get home. So I felt that I had to do something to show the troops that people cared about them. Being a mother, my first thought was, 'Oh I have to send food and warmth and just words of encouragement.' What I learned fairly quickly though was that following the anthrax scare, you could no longer send a package or a letter addressed to no particular soldier. Now you had to actually have a specific name and address to send it to. I didn't know anybody personally, so I started networking and got a few names. I sent my first four packages on the day the war broke out in Iraq. In every package I sent, I'd include a letter saying, 'If you know anyone else who would like to receive one, please e-mail me.' And slowly it just mushroomed. At the same time, people all over the community wanted to do something to show support and there were these massive collection drives. But they didn't know what to do with it all. There was no place to give it to. So within a few weeks of the war breaking out, my living room was filled with donated items."
In August 2003, Blashek moved the operation out of her living room and into the local USO, and for their first holiday drive, over Veteran's Day weekend, they sent out 7000 packages. Over the next summer, "Our Patriotic Drive kicked off over the Memorial Day weekend to get packages to the troops for July 4th. We sent out almost 13,000 packages. Now we are in our second holiday drive and we have already sent out over 18,000 [packages]. My hope is to do at least another 7,000 to 10,000 by the end of the year."
Where do you ship to?
"We will send to anyone who is in a deployment situation," she replied. "We go to Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Korea, Guantanamo Bay, ships throughout the Gulf. The majority of the names now are given to us by command leaders in the field."
Judging from thank-you notes, Blashek says servicemen who receive the packages "are struck by the fact that they are receiving stuff from total strangers, that people who don't know them are taking the time out of their schedules, taking money out of their pockets to make an effort to say thank you. Some of the most moving letters we receive are when somebody writes that they had been on a very difficult mission, gone for a few days. When they came back to their tent, just drained, and wondering how they were going to face the next day, and they looked and there was an Operation Gratitude package on their cot and it just totally perked them up."
What goods do they want?
"Individually packaged snack foods that are easily pocketed: beef jerky, trail mix, dried fruit, or energy bars. Only commercially packaged foods can be sent. Also entertainment items: DVDs, CDs, decks of cards, phone cards, little handheld games. During the holidays, we try to send several holiday cards for them to be able to send back to their loved ones."
Blashek doesn't send books or magazines because of their weight, but "we like to send comic books. We also send Beanie Babies, either for the troops to keep for fun or for them to give to the local kids as a way of establishing a rapport."
What can't you send?
"No pornography, no pork products, because it is a Muslim country; no alcohol and no overtly religious materials," answered Blashek. She also discourages toiletries because "they're heavy, the troops can get them there, and they are not that fun.
"The hallmark of our packages," Blashek continues, "is the personal letters that we include from kids from all over the country. Teachers will have their students write letters or parents will have their kids write letters and send them to us. We screen them and include some in each package. Based on the responses we get from the troops, those mean the most."
Blashek says the troops often write back to the kids.
Donations and letters sent to Blashek, which must be unwrapped and not enveloped, can be sent to 16444 Refugio Road, Encino, California 91436. More information can be obtained at www.opgratitude.com.