The Every Day is a Day On series spotlights volunteers at Operation Gratitude who are moved to action to support servicemen and women, their families, and first responders.
This week we feature Sonyia Joiner, a volunteer from California who has been with Operation Gratitude since 2011. Sonyia is a volunteer who does it all. She crochets, sews, makes paracord bracelets, greeting cards, and writes letters while helping those working at the FOB by screening letters.
This is Sonyia’s Story…
Sonyia Joiner has been volunteering at Operation Gratitude since 2011 when she began looking for places to donate handmade items. She has been an avid crocheter since she was six years old, and eventually found herself with large amounts of leftover yarn from all of her projects, many of which she gave to family and friends. After an online search, she discovered Operation Gratitude and was struck emotionally by founder Carolyn Blashek’s story.
Sonyia immediately knew that this was the organization she wanted to be associated with. She began volunteering at home, shipping her donations directly to the FOB or donating online. But eventually, she became curious and wanted to see the hub of Operation Gratitude for herself, and she has returned countless times since.
Although crocheting is her favorite method of volunteerism, she enjoys sewing cool ties and drawstring bags. She’s also ventured into card making because of the many options for creativity and color. Even while working a full-time job, Sonyia said “there’s not a day that goes by where I’m not doing something for Operation Gratitude. I just enjoy it so much.”
At the end of 2019, CEO Kevin Schmiegel announced the #OG2020 challenge, where volunteers would commit to creating 2,020 items or actions. Sonyia and Kelly South, the Director of Handmade with Love Programs, decided to make 2,020 handmade items each, and they called each other weekly for updates and ideas. She described Kelly as a “force of nature” who is extremely driven and passionate, especially when it comes to Operation Gratitude. The competitiveness was contagious to Sonyia, so she continued pushing herself and eventually surpassed the original goal, making 2,500 items which was a combination of scarves, drawstring bags, cool ties, and cards, along with additional financial donations to sponsor care packages.
Sonyia met Kelly around 2012 when Operation Gratitude sent out a call for paracord bracelets. Kelly was sponsoring a class at the FOB to teach volunteers how to make the bracelets. Later, in 2019, they connected over email when Sonyia needed advice on drawstring bag-making. Although Kelly was in the midst of the busy holiday season, she responded right away, and their friendship has grown since.
Over her 10 years of volunteering with Operation Gratitude, one of Sonyia’s most memorable experiences was her first assembly day at the FOB. She was overwhelmed by the energy and passion, and she said seeing a collective group of such diverse individuals working for one goal brought tears to her eyes. Sonyia wasn’t expecting to see so many people coming together.
“There’s something for everyone. If you can’t stand for long periods of time, there are plenty of activities to do seated. If you aren’t comfortable in large groups, you can read or write letters. There are no special talents required to volunteer, just a desire,” Sonyia said.
When she talks about her involvement, she uses “we” instead of “they” because she feels part of the family, like her contributions and voice are seen, heard, and appreciated.
“Once you walk through the door, you’re made to feel welcome. The Blue Shirts are always there to answer questions or direct you, so you don’t feel lost.”
Sonyia expressed that a strong desire and a willingness to show appreciation are all that is required of a volunteer at Operation Gratitude. The simple act of taking 10 minutes from your day to write a letter or addressing a card might seem insignificant, but it can make the difference in the life of deployed troops, someone who might not have friends or family to write to, or front-line responders who need a morale boost.
“It takes a very strong person to make the decision to join the military and leave behind those they love and the comforts of home,” Sonyia said. “They put on a uniform and serve to protect the freedoms that we all enjoy, so something as simple as writing a letter or crocheting a scarf shows them that they are appreciated, so you can count me in anytime.”
She has personally found a lot of inspiration in Operation Gratitude’s mail call section where testimonials from care package recipients are found, as well as Carolyn Blashek’s story. Sonyia says that even to this day, “it still brings tears to my eyes that a soldier who was fighting for my freedom doesn’t care if he makes it back, simply because no one was waiting for him.”
Sonyia went on to share a story about a source of her motivation, which comes from the cool ties page on Operation Gratitude’s website, that she consistently returns to.
“Let’s say the weather here [in California] is hot, and I’m miserable because my air is out. All I have to do is go on the Operation Gratitude website and look under cool ties, and there’s a picture of a soldier,” Sonyia said.
“He’s wearing full gear and his face is sunburnt and he’s trying to cool himself off with a bottle of water. And to this day, that picture drives me to keep making cool ties, so that soldiers can have them. It’s a simple act that I can do.”
Operation Gratitude has deeply impacted Sonyia’s life and has made her better informed as to what soldiers and veterans endure. With their efforts to branch out into different service groups, her appreciation has also grown for law enforcement and first responders, especially in the midst of a pandemic. After many years, she has found no better place to dedicate her time. She is always eager to get back to work on another volunteerism goal.
Get involved with Operation Gratitude’s virtual volunteerism efforts today!
This post was written by Jake Kelly, a communications intern at Operation Gratitude. Jake is from the Chicago suburbs and is a sophomore at the University of Connecticut pursuing a Bachelor’s in Journalism & History with a minor in Political Science.
Read more in the Every Day is a Day On blog series.