I struggled to find the right words to describe how much I miss serving alongside YOU, our volunteers, and being part of something truly special — meaningful engagements that strengthen and unite communities. But then the right words came.
As I scrolled through my Facebook feed, post after post, I saw the extraordinary impact that Operation Gratitude made a year ago today. From Nashville and Bristol in Tennessee all the way to Baltimore our team did what we do best — we made important connections between those who serve and the citizens they protect. A year ago today we provided opportunities for Americans across the country to express appreciation in a hands-on way. And we went a step further.
Our volunteers were able to say “thank you for your service” in person, directly to active duty service members and their families, veterans, and first responders in the communities where they live and work. In return, they heard a local hero respond with the words, “thank you for your support.” And we didn’t stop there.
Those five simple words, in both directions, were the start of a conversation that led to a meaningful connection, which created better understanding and built bridges between civilians and those who serve our nation. So let me tell you more about what we did a year ago today and what it means for the future of our organization and the communities we serve, together with you.
One year ago today, our team and our volunteers assembled 10,000 Operation Gratitude Care Pouches in just three hours, and we hand-delivered them to every police officer, firefighter, and EMT in Nashville, The words of Police Captain Daniel Newbern in this Tennessean article demonstrate the impact we made, “the items in the bag don’t mean nearly as much as the effort put into the bag. It touches every single officer. This lets them know this community supports them and welcomes them.”
That day our volunteers also delivered Battalion Buddies to children of deployed Troops from the 101st Airborne Division. I saw our volunteers hug those families, thank them, and for more than two hours, talk to them about what it was like to be away from their husbands and their fathers for months on end. As I walked one military spouse to the door she turned to me and said, “I’ve never experienced that before — everyone here was so kind and they listened to me. They really understand what we’re going through.”
As I reflect on that moment and type these words, I feel the same emotion that I did a year ago. My eyes are welling up with tears thinking about the impact we made. By saying thank you and enabling direct and meaningful connections, we sparked a bond in Nashville a year ago. And Operation Gratitude has been back to “Music City” several times since that day to go one step further and forge strong bonds in the community.
With the help of First Lady Maria Lee and through multiple deliveries to first responders and National Guardsmen during COVID-19 and a devastating tornado, we strengthened the resolve of the men and women in harm’s way. As Captain Newbern said in an email last month, “Operation Gratitude lifted our spirits and provided much needed support.”
Literally seconds after I finished looking through the photos from Nashville, our COO, retired Marine Colonel Paul Cucinotta, posted a memory on his feed about his experience representing Operation Gratitude at Bristol Motor Speedway, 300 miles away on the other side of Tennessee. A year ago today, Paul and his son, Joey, helped forge strong bonds and build bridges, too.
As I scrolled through the photos with Operation Gratitude’s logo emblazoned on the No. 18 M&M’s USA car, I thought about the conversation I had with Paul a year ago today when he excitedly recounted what he saw and experienced — Americans coming together not only around their common passion for NASCAR, but to celebrate our nation.
He met with drivers, mechanics and fans – including dozens of military veterans and first responders. They shared stories about service and sacrifice, and talked about the great work Operation Gratitude was doing in communities across America. I will never forget the tone in Paul’s voice as he told me how honored and proud he was to be part of our organization and “a movement that was bringing people together to thank and support the brave men and women who serve our country.”
Stay tuned for what Operation Gratitude will be doing with Mars Wrigley and NASCAR in the very near future to build community and shed a light on the important work we are doing to unite our country.
An hour later I looked at my feed again, and saw another member of our team, Navy Spouse Monica Shea, and her Facebook memory from a year ago today, when she joined Baltimore police officers and their families to fill backpacks with items that Operation Gratitude had donated for children in underprivileged communities as they prepared to go back to school. I will never forget her text that night either. Monica expressed the same pride and used the same words as Paul — she was honored to be part of Operation Gratitude and to witness firsthand the impact of bringing people together in communities in a meaningful way.
Monica saw what it looks like to forge strong bonds and bridge divides. Those bonds were sparked when Operation Gratitude hosted an Assembly Day for the first time in Baltimore just two months before on June 1, 2019 with our volunteers and our partner, CSX.
After creating that first meaningful connection, Operation Gratitude’s team and our volunteers were invited back to deliver the Care Pouches in person to 10,000 first responders in police and fire stations throughout Baltimore City and County. We were also invited back to join their communities for National Night Out in early August and yet again for their Backpack Giveaway on August 17. Operation Gratitude provided the opportunities for the officers and the citizens they protect to to come together in meaningful ways — and it all started two months earlier when hundreds of volunteers said “thank you for your service” 10,000 times.
As Richard Worley, chief of patrol for the Baltimore Police Department, said in this Baltimore Sun article, appreciation means “a tremendous amount to all of the officers because it gives them hope and encouragement for what they do.” And because of the connections we made with the citizens of Baltimore that day, he went a step further to say: “We need the community probably more than they need us. We need them to help us solve the issues that we have.”
As I read those words from Chief Worley above, I am filled with emotion yet again with the realization that we all need each other to help solve the issues facing our nation and our communities. Saying “thank you for your service” is the start of a conversation that leads to a meaningful connection and a better understanding of what service means.
Today is also a perfect day to highlight some of our volunteers who have embraced our mission. Over the course of our three week “Red, White and Blue” Paracord Challenge, 1,319 of you sparked a bond by saying “thank you” in a very tangible way, making 40,552 bracelets.
Special recognition goes to our top 3 crafters: Shelly Coulombe of Coventry, RI (1550 Bracelets), Charlotte Robles of Santa Ynez, CA (1201 Bracelets) and Melissa Keever of Stevensville, MD (1060 Bracelets). Our group winners are: National Charity League San Ramon Chapter (1830 Bracelets), National Charity League – San Marino Chapter (1000 Bracelets) and Oceanside Rotary Club (665 Bracelets).
As a way of expressing my own gratitude to you by sharing an email from a service member who already received one of these bracelets: “The paracord bracelet I received is now holding up our U.S. Flag in the housing area.”
These beautiful bracelets represent only one of the myriad ways we build bridges and forge strong bonds every day — and it all starts with a “thank you.”
During these challenging times, as you reflect on what Operation Gratitude did a year ago today and what you have done to support us for the past 365 days, I am asking you to consider two things. First, what do you want to see our organization accomplish over the next 12 months; and secondly, how do you want to take action with us?
Please feel free to email me what you feel is most important, so the next time I send you an email with the subject line – “A Year Ago Today” – you will feel the same pride I experience every time I have the opportunity to serve alongside YOU and make an impact in all of the communities we serve nationwide.