Bridging the Divide: Honoring First Responders in Jacksonville, Florida on 9/11

Three weeks ago on the 17th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, dozens of First Responders from Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and surrounding Fire Departments gathered together to be thanked and honored for their service. They were welcomed by grateful Americans who stood next to tables stacked high with signature red Operation Gratitude Care Pouches designed specifically for First Responders.

On just my third day as the organization’s first-ever Regional Director, I helped deliver 3,000 First Responder Care Pouches with our CEO, retired Marine LtCol Kevin Schmiegel and volunteers from a local church who had requested the pouches just days before the tragic shooting at The Jacksonville Landing.

I received my own Care Package from Operation Gratitude when I was deployed with the U.S. Army on the border of Turkey and Syria in 2015. I remember how good it felt for our unit to open boxes branded with “Gratitude” and filled with reminders of home, when serving so far away from our own homes during the holidays. I also remember the immense appreciation I felt for the volunteers who donated the items and for the support they shared in thank you letters and cards at a time when my fellow soldiers and I were missing our families very much.

Now I had the opportunity to “pay it forward” and give back as an Operation Gratitude employee, and I was proud to represent our volunteers in Southern California who came together at a moment’s notice to quickly assemble the 3,000 care pouches on August 29th, ensuring delivery on September 11th to show our support for the Jacksonville community and appreciation for the Heroes who responded to the shooting there.

Public service has deep roots in my family. Both of my grandfathers served in the U.S. Army, and one later as a police officer where I grew up in Alexandria, Virginia. On a national day of service and remembrance, it was a humbling experience to look First Responders, like my own Grandfather, in the eyes and express my appreciation for their service and for the selflessness and sacrifice they demonstrate on a daily basis.

I am so excited to continue my family’s legacy of service and to serve again as part of the Operation Gratitude team at this important time in the organization’s history. It was a privilege to start my OG journey with the launch of the BRIDGE Council, and join a grassroots movement designed to bridge the civilian-service divide through hands-on volunteerism, expressions of gratitude, and meaningful engagements in communities across America.  As an Army Veteran, I was drawn to Operation Gratitude’s mission which is all about actions – not words. Grateful Americans are looking for ways to honor and thank all those who serve, and with the help of our volunteers, service-friendly companies and community organizations across the country, we are giving them real ways to do so.

The critical importance of what Operation Gratitude is tangibly doing to bridge the divide hit me as we delivered Care Pouches at our final stop in Jacksonville – Fire Station #1, to the firefighters who were the first to respond to the shooting on August 26th. As I stood with several volunteers in front of a framed tribute listing the names of each of the first responders who died in service to our nation on September 11, 2001, I realized the opportunity and the responsibility I have in my new role to make meaningful connections and bridge the divide in communities our Heroes serve and protect.  

I will give my best every day to make a difference and expand the grassroots movement that our Founder, Carolyn Blashek, started more than 15 years ago.

As a soldier and as a recipient of an Operation Gratitude Care Package and the appreciation of the American people, I ask you to join our movement too.

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Channeling the Holiday Spirit this Summer

Amidst the heat of the summer, an image of logs crackling in the fireplace and casting a glow on stockings hung above is probably the last thing to come to mind for most people. But for Operation Gratitude and our growing army of volunteers nationwide, the holiday spirit is always in our thoughts.

More Than Just a Hug

When I look back at my journey over the past 3 years and 8 months as the CEO of Operation Gratitude, the one thing that sticks out the most are the hugs.

They are etched in my memory forever — literally thousands of hugs at hundreds of service projects and community-building events — on too many trips, and in too many cities to count, from sea to shining sea.