Operation Gratitude is the largest nonprofit in the United States for hands-on-volunteerism in support of active duty service members, veterans, first responders, and their families. In 2019 alone, more than 1 million volunteers participated in more than 10,000 service projects across the country. We spoke with Kevin Schmiegel, Operation Gratitude’s Chief Executive Officer, to learn how the organization was started, the impact they have through their work, and how teams can get involved in their mission.
How did Operation Gratitude start?
Our founder, Carolyn Blashek, grew up in NYC and was obviously deeply impacted by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. She was living in LA, so the very next day she went to the Marine Recruiter’s office in LA and tried to enlist in the Marine Corps. At the time she was in her mid-40s and a lawyer by trade, so a little past the age limit. The Marine politely turned her away and said they were kind of busy. Then she went from service to service and heard the same thing from the Army, Navy, and Air Force.
So, she started volunteering at the USO lounge in LAX. Then, in March 2003, a young soldier walked in, clearly despondent, and asked Carolyn to see a chaplain. There was no chaplain on duty. He was getting ready to get on a plane back to go back to Iraq. He said to Carolyn, ‘I’m going back to Iraq and I know I’m not coming home, but it doesn’t matter because no one would care.” He had been home on emergency leave for his mother’s funeral — she was his sole-surviving parent — and while he was home, his wife left him, and they lost their only infant son to a sudden illness. He literally had no one.
Carolyn never got his contact information, but she wanted to do something to show that there were people back home that did care. She went home, got some friends together, and they put together care packages for four soldiers. They sent these over the day the invasion of Iraq started on March 19, 2003. Six weeks later, her entire house was completely flooded with boxes from around the community after people heard what she was trying to do.
Fast-forward 16 1/2 years later and I was in our warehouse a couple of weeks ago with 2,000 volunteers who assembled 12,000 care packages in just a few hours. That’s how something that started on Carolyn’s dining room table grew through the appreciation of the American public and their inspiration to give back and show service members, even today, that there are people back home who care.
Deployed service men and women receive their Operation Gratitude care packages in time for the holidays.
Why did you decide to get involved?
For me, there is a realization of having served in the Marine Corps for 20 years and having a son who is also a Marine, who enlisted 5 years ago right after high school. When I was deployed as a Marine over those 20 years, there were thousands of Marines and other service members who I saw deployed and never got care packages and letters, and didn’t have the same support that I gave to my son, Karl. So, I was drawn to Operation Gratitude because the need was there. And just this month, I celebrated my 2-year anniversary as the CEO.
Who are the people Operation Gratitude supports?
Of the 2.5 million care packages that we’ve delivered since 2003, more than 1.7 million have gone to deployed service men and women. When the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan waned, we expanded our care package programs to include those who served, veterans, and we now have a program for wounded heroes and caregivers and another one for recruit graduates, which basically supports our newest service members on the day they graduate boot camp. Starting next year, we’ll be supporting all five (Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard) of the services, potentially reaching 200,000 recruit graduates annually.
We also have a program for military families. This year we’ll send 20,000 of our Battalion Buddies, these are stuffed bears, hand-made by volunteers across the country.
Three years ago, we started a program for first responders, which is our fastest growing program, where we provide care pouches to them as well. Police officers, firefighters, and EMTS across the country have received our care pouches. We have distributed 200,000 care pouches in 3 years to more than 500 police and fire departments in all 50 states and DC.
What is in the care packages that volunteers assemble?
We get 100,000 hand-knit, crocheted scarves, 1 million hand-written letters from across the country. We receive 300,000 paracord survival bracelets that are handmade by grateful Americans from corporations and community-based groups nationwide. 80,000 boxes of girl scout cookies every spring flow into our warehouse. More than 400,000 pounds of candy… There’s almost a story behind every item that goes into every care package and a purpose behind each. The overall intent is to show and demonstrate tangible appreciation.
Imagine being a deployed service member on Christmas and you’re away from your family for the first time, and you receive a package with a lot of useful items and snack items and hygiene items, it has a huge impact… But when you see someone took the time, a complete stranger in a company or a community, from a church or school, to hand make a scarf or paracord bracelet or hand write a letter, it certainly goes a long way.
How is Operation Gratitude different from other programs that work with veterans or service members?
We provide every American the chance to express appreciation through hands-on volunteerism. I’ve seen other nonprofits go to electronic letter writing, “Say thank you here,” and they take electronic signatures. There’s a fundamental difference, and it’s a lot more work that makes a bigger impact.
The fact is that all 20,000 of the Battalion Buddies we deliver to children of deployed troops are probably touched by 4 or 5 people to make them military-kid-ready. If we’re going to send a bear to a child of a deployed service member, we’re going to make sure that is ready to be received by a young kid that’s going through a really rough time. That means 100,000 people touched those bears, and that’s not an exaggeration. Every single letter we get is read by a volunteer to make sure it’s appropriate for a service member. or veteran. or a wounded hero and caregiver. That requires an immense amount of work. Every single scarf is rolled and has a rubber band around it so it can go in our care packages. Everyone one of those scarves has a note saying its handmade, and sometimes that note is written by the knitter itself. The amount of love and care that goes into each item cannot be replicated.
For years and years this organization has been based in LA,and for the first time, we’re starting to replicate that model in other cities and bring Operation Gratitude to more people. We’re starting to get in the media and when people hear about it, and see it, and touch it, they’re just going to want to do more. That’s what makes it so special.
Operation Gratitude serves veterans and on-duty service men and women alike.
What makes Operation Gratitude a great organization for companies to volunteer with?
First, Operation Gratitude makes it extremely easy for employees to give back. The feedback we get consistently is that volunteering with us is turnkey, employees love it, and the people who organized it love it, too. If employees are asking you to have a strategy focused on volunteerism and we make it easy for you, we’re a logical partner. The second thing is access, we give companies access to half a million military, veterans, and first responders each year, and very few other organizations have that reach. Lastly, in my experience there are many companies that want to attract veterans and spouses as employees, and who want to make supporting service members a part of their brand. We offer the chance for companies to show they care with branded items added to the care packages or hand written letters on branded stationary. From being a new recruit to a deployed troop to a veteran, you can show your gratitude throughout the cycle of their service and lives. That kind of loyalty is something people do not forget.
Corporate teams can sign up to be a part of Operation Gratitude’s work on Visit.org. The volunteer activities that are currently listed on the platform include: assembling care pouches or hygiene care kits, building the Battalion Buddy bears for military kids, writing personalized letters, and creating paracord survival bracelets to be included in each care package.
When corporate teams volunteer with Operation Gratitude, they are able to thank deployed troops, veterans, wounded heroes and caregivers, first responders, and their families for their service.
Photos courtesy of Operation Gratitude *Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.