Q&A with Carolyn Blashek, Founder of Operation Gratitude
A few weeks ago, we heard an incredible story about how one woman started an organization that has positively impacted the lives of our military all over the world, and has even played a hand in saving some of their lives.
Now, we get a chance to hear from the inspirational founder herself. Read on to learn more about the day that inspired Carolyn Blashek to dream up Operation Gratitude, her favorite item to include in military care packages and an exciting story about how Operation Gratitude, along with the help of some trusty beanie babies, managed to help a group of service members save thousands of lives.
Q: Tell us a little more about Operation Gratitude. What inspired you to start this organization, and how did you first get started?
Everything began on September 11, 2001. I was heartbroken after seeing the attack that took place on our homeland and I was determined to do something to help.
At first, I tried to join the military, but at 46 years old, I was past the age limit, according to the eligibility requirements. I then wanted to find some way to support the military as a civilian, but there weren’t a lot of options at the time. I started volunteering at the USO lounge at LAX. Then, in March 2003, a soldier walked in and asked for a chaplain. He was desperate to talk to someone, so I sat down with him and just listened.
He told me that his mom had just died, his wife had left him and his only child had passed away as an infant. He was on his way to board the plane and return to the war, but he had a feeling he wasn’t coming back home this time –and there was nothing to come back to anyway. His story absolutely tore me apart. I needed to show him and all of his comrades that people back home really do care about them and want them to return.
When my own children used to go away to summer camp, I would write them letters every day and send them care packages once a week. I decided that’s what I would do for the troops to show them that someone is always thinking of them.
Carolyn Blashek, Founder of Operation Gratitude (right) with Chris Clark, National Development Officer (left)
Q: We heard that you started Operation Gratitude with a few friends in your living room. How were you able to grow the organization to what it is today?
For the first six months, I worked entirely out of my house. A couple friends helped and people would drop off or mail their donated items to me. In August 2003, I started running low on products and money. Just when I was starting to worry about the lack of resources, someone mentioned that the local National Guard armory had received a large supply of sunscreen.
I went to the armory and ran into a female soldier, SSG Elizabeth Cowie, who was also sending care packages to troops overseas. We decided to combine our efforts and plan a coordinated event for the holidays, setting a goal of 1,500 packages. She obtained permission to open up the armory for three days over the Veterans Weekend in 2003. We blasted out emails with the hope of recruiting volunteers. We didn’t expect many people to show up, but to our surprise, hundreds of people streamed in that weekend. We ended up shipping out 3,000 care packages (doubling our goal), each specially labeled with an individual service member’s name.
After that event, word spread like wildfire. Hundreds of people started showing up, eager to volunteer and donate.
Q: We noticed that you also send beanie babies in your care packages. Any special reason?
In 2003, a supporter on the east coast came up with the brilliant idea to send beanie babies in the care packages, and donated thousands of them to us. At first, I thought, would these big, tough soldiers and marines really be interested in stuffed animals? To my surprise, the troops ended up absolutely loving them! The beanie babies seemed to serve as a reminder of home and a symbol of support.
In addition to boosting morale, we soon learned that the beanie babies also serve an even greater purpose. Troops began giving their candy and beanie babies to kids in the areas where they were patrolling, gaining their friendship and trust. In return, the children told the troops where bombs were hidden or where dangerous people were located. Several care package recipients wrote and said, “You are not just putting smiles on our faces—you are saving our lives.” Since then, we have been determined to include a beanie baby in every care package.
Q: Can you tell us the story about delivering Operation Gratitude’s one millionth package?
That was an amazing experience! My dream has always been to ”tailhook” onto an aircraft carrier to deliver a milestone package. Our Board Chair, Martha “Marty” Martin, and Board Member, Sue Pollard (both “Navy Moms”) and I flew to Bahrain, where the Navy picked us up, and flew us to the USS Harry S. Truman in the Gulf of Oman. From there, we took a helicopter to the USS Gettysburg, where we delivered the millionth package to a sailor deployed on that ship. But first, we gave a care package to, and hugged, each of the 350+ sailors on board! It was such a treat to see each sailor smile as we called him or her by name and handed them their care package.
Q: What is your favorite item to send to military overseas? What item do you think soldiers value most?
The most important items, by far, are the personal letters. They manifest exactly what Operation Gratitude is all about—sending our message of respect and appreciation. The snack foods will be enjoyed, and the hand sanitizer will be useful, but the letters – those are the mementos that will be saved and treasured forever.
Q: You ship up to ten thousand packages in a single day! Do you have any shipping tips you can share with our readers?
We use USPS Priority Mail boxes to ship packages overseas, and it’s been a life-saver on costs. Also, never underestimate the power of branded packaging. I made a decision when I first started Operation Gratitude to label our packages with an Operation Gratitude logo – and it turned out to be one of the smartest business decisions I’ve ever made. Now, when our packages start to arrive by the pallet load, our name can be seen all over the military bases. And, troops know that they’ve received an Operation Gratitude care package, even before they’ve opened it!
We’d like to thank Carolyn and the rest of the Operation Gratitude team for sharing your story with us. You are truly inspiring people. If you are interested in being part of the Operation Gratitude cause, please click here to learn how you can make a difference.
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