|Simply saying, ‘Thank you’
Volunteers from Operation Gratitude at the California National Guard Armory in Van Nuys put together personalized care packages containing letters of support, CDs, DVDs, disposable cameras, packaged snacks and prepaid calling cards to send to troops in Iraq.
Local volunteers send thousands of care packages to troops stationed abroad.
By Ryan O’Quinn / Special to The Malibu Times
Last week the National Guard Armory in Van Nuys was buzzing with volunteers from all over Los Angeles. They were gearing up for another campaign to send thousands of care packages to American soldiers deployed overseas. Among those who helped to gather the packages were Encino mom Carolyn Blashek and Malibu resident Rena Patterson of Operation Gratitude, an organization that Blashek formed with the purpose of simply saying thank you to members of the military.
Following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Blashek decided she needed to aid her country and attempted to join the military. At the time, Blashek was 46 years old and said she was politely rejected by the Armed Forces.
“After September 11, I really felt the need to get involved,” Blashek said. “I tried to join every branch of the military, but was way too old. The cutoff age was 35. I felt very strongly that the military would bear the brunt of whatever came next and I knew I had to help in some way.”
In 2003, Blashek was volunteering at a United Service Organizations lounge at the LAX Airport that caters to soldiers flying to various deployments around the world. She spoke with one young man on his way to Iraq who said he didn’t know if he would make it back home alive and didn’t think anyone cared. From that point on, Blashek was determined to show as many soldiers as possible that someone was thinking about them.
The result has been an outpouring of support from individuals, businesses and corporations that have donated time, money and goods to send tens of thousands of personalized care packages to men and women serving on the front lines.
“I thought, ‘I have to let them know that I care about them’,” Blashek said. “I knew there were other people in the community that felt the same way I did and I started collecting things to ship to the soldiers.”
From March to August 2003, Blashek organized donations and shipped goods from her Encino home. She and other volunteers paid the postage, which often ranged from $10-$15 per package.
Because of security concerns and the anthrax scare, all packages had to be addressed specifically to individual soldiers. Blashek began including letters of encouragement and gratitude in the packages.
After a few months of shipping and hearing stories of the impact the packages made when the soldiers received those packages, Blashek’s organization joined forces with the local California National Guard who were organizing shipments as well.
“After speaking with this female soldier at the Armory, I knew we needed to do something big,” Blashek said. “Our goal was to assemble 1,500 packages. By the end of the weekend we had sent 4,000.”
Among those helping to make a soldier’s day is Patterson, who volunteers every Friday to package shipments and help organize the operation.
“I wanted to make a difference somehow,” Patterson said. “It’s very personal. These soldiers open up those care packages and it really means a lot to them that somebody was thinking of them. They really appreciate those letters of encouragement.”
Patterson said she and her husband were wind surfing at a local beach and saw an Operation Gratitude bumper sticker on a car. She asked some questions and ended up becoming a member of the “Hard Corps” team, which meets weekly.
“I think people really want to help,” Patterson said. “It doesn’t matter how you feel about the war or what your political views are, but you have to appreciate what the soldiers are doing there.”
Patterson said it is easy for some people to write a check and, while monetary donations are important, Operation Gratitude is a way for people of all ages to directly impact a soldier by buying items for the packages, writing letters of encouragement or volunteering to help pack shipments.
In addition to the letters of support, the care packages often contain items such as DVDs, CDs, disposable cameras, mini-fans, packaged snacks and prepaid calling cards.
Blashek said the organization is currently focusing on the Third Annual Holiday Drive, which entails the final two events of the year. The Veterans Day Weekend event will take place Nov. 10-13 and the Thanksgiving Holiday Weekend will be Nov. 25-27 at the Armory. Volunteers will be assembling and shipping more than 30,000 packages to U.S. troops currently deployed, which will bring the total number of packages shipped to more than 100,000.
Blashek added that every item gets inspected and every letter gets read prior to shipment to insure that all safety precautions and military requirements are being met.
Event organizers said DVDs and CDs are a big hit with the soldiers, and they are currently looking for sponsors in the entertainment industry that may have media that could be donated. They have also recently partnered with other groups that donate funds to the group when individuals or companies recycle cell phones or printer cartridges. Some local schools are also organizing classroom letter writing drives and offering community service credit hours.
Goods and donations can be sent directly to Operation Gratitude and pickup can be arranged if needed. The shipping address is 21100 Lassen Street, Chatsworth, CA 91311. More information can be found at the Web site, www.OperationGratitude.com