December 9, 2020 it will be three years since I joined our Founder, Carolyn Blashek, and 2,000 other grateful Americans at my first Operation Gratitude Assembly Day. What I saw that day took my breath away. In that moment I realized the true potential of this amazing organization that now impacts more than one million volunteers and a half million service men and women and their families each year.
A few weeks later, I presented a strategic vision to our Board of Directors. It defined the next chapter for this grassroots movement, which started on Carolyn’s dining room table. It called on everyone involved to go a step beyond saying “thank you for your service” and make more meaningful connections with our military and first responders in communities nationwide.
I was so excited to share how Operation Gratitude was uniquely positioned to solve an issue that our country and senior military leadership had been talking about for more than a decade — the civilian-military divide.
The truth is our plan was simple. First, replicate what we built in Los Angeles in other cities across the country. Second, create opportunities for civilians and those who serve to come together and forge strong bonds through a common passion for serving their communities and one another.
As I told you last week, naysayers who said we “just did care packages,” couldn’t see the forest through the trees. Instead of trying to convince them with wordy explanations, we showed them with our actions that service and gratitude could bring communities together and bridge divides.
For the 16 months leading up to COVID, we did just that in dozens of cities across the country. One can just take a look at these community-building events in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, and Los Angeles to realize we were building understanding, empathy and ultimately bridges between those who serve and the citizens they protect.
I saw our bigger vision being achieved not only at those community-wide service projects but also at more than 70 direct deliveries over the past two years. I watched grateful Americans say thank you for your service as they handed a care package to a service member, veteran, or a first responder. Inevitably there was an awkward silence and the room was quiet… And then it happened, like magic. The volume in the room started to rise. People in and out of uniform started to laugh, swap stories, and have meaningful conversations about what it was like to serve in the military or as a first responder.
In those conversations they also realized that they shared the same neighbors, their kids went to the same schools, and they shared the same values rooted in a deep passion for service and strengthening their communities.
December 9, 2020, just three years later, I will join our team and much smaller groups of volunteers here in Washington DC in a COVID safe environment to assemble thousands of care packages for Deployed Troops — while the rest of our team and a few dedicated volunteers do the same at our HQ in LA.
During my own journey as the CEO of Operation Gratitude over the past 36 months, there have been lots of ups and downs, as we strived to grow, effect change, and convince others to see the forest through the trees and recognize the important work of our small and mighty nonprofit.
Sometimes in thinking about the bigger picture and wanting desperately to make a difference on a critical issue facing our nation’s military and first responders, I lost sight of what was critical to our success – the profound and immeasurable impact we continue to make on individual recipients and volunteers. I couldn’t see the tree through the forest.
Since that first assembly day in December of 2017 when we celebrated our 2 Millionth Care Package delivered over 15 years, we have impacted a million more heroes around the world and here at home – one million more in just 3 years… and more than a half million this year alone in the midst of a global pandemic.
Those are certainly big numbers, but they don’t truly capture the magnitude of our impact. Because for every tree in our forest of recipients, there is a personal story of service and sacrifice. Whether it is a young Soldier quarantined in South Korea and separated from her two-year-old son or a Vietnam Veteran hearing the words “thank you for your service” for the first time, we have made a difference in so many lives.
The same can be said for our growing army of volunteers across the country. From just a few around a dining room table 18 years ago to more than one million today, we have changed their lives forever, too. We gave every tree in our forest of do-gooders an opportunity to give back in a hands-on way and connect with those who serve.
Even during a global pandemic, we gave hundreds of thousands of people in need a sense of purpose; and as one crocheter told me last month, “a reason to get out of bed every morning.”
As an organization we are creating more and more opportunities for those “trees” to touch one another and deepen their roots in hundreds of communities nationwide. This forest called Operation Gratitude is spreading and taking hold greater than ever before, because of you. Each of us has a role to play in going a step beyond saying “thank you for your service” and making deeper connections with those who serve our communities and our nation.
I, too, am just one tree standing tall and proud alongside you. I promise I will do my best each and every day to help our organization realize the vision that was entrusted to me three years ago.
I know — three years from tomorrow — there will be millions of more trees like you and me standing tall and serving together. And in joining our movement, they will make our forest spread even further and take root in every corner of America. Together we will bridge the civilian-service divide.