Seventy-two deployed troops, veterans, new recruits, and first responders will get well-deserved thank yous from the Estrella Mountain Community College (EMCC) community.
EMCC’s inaugural Operation Gratitude event was held May 29 in the Student Union. The brainchild of Linda Rubino, Center for Teaching and Learning Training Consultant, Operation Gratitude invited students, faculty, and staff, as well as members of the community, to write letters thanking troops, veterans, new recruits, and first responders for their service to our country.
“I’m on the K.A.R.E. Committee for Estrella and one of the things we do is put together an activity for Estrella to come together and do something that goes along with whatever the theme is for the month,” Rubino said. “My thing is gratitude, so I thought, what can we do for gratitude this month? There are so many options and opportunities. We can thank each other, we can thank our students. And then I thought, let’s extend it outward and thank our troops.”
So Rubino, whose uncle and nephew both served in the military, went online and started searching for ways to thank our troops and found Operation Gratitude. Founded in March 2003 by Carolyn Blashek, Operation Gratitude sends individually addressed care packages to troops deployed overseas, to their children left behind, and to first responders, new recruits, veterans, wounded heroes, and their caregivers. Each package contains snacks, hygiene products, entertainment, and handmade items, as well as personal letters of support. Blashek, who was volunteering at the military lounge at Los Angeles airport, conceived Operation Gratitude after being visited by a soldier who was on leave from a deployment in a war zone to attend his mother’s funeral. He told Blashek his wife had left him, his only child had died, and he knew he wouldn’t make it back after returning to the war zone, but it didn’t matter because “no one would even care.” Realizing that troops must believe someone at home cares about them, Blashek launched Operation Gratitude.
“They really love to receive the letters in their care packages,” Rubino said. “It really brings a great connection.”
A steady stream of do-gooders, including EMCC staffers and student workers, filtered in and out of the Student Union throughout the day, penning words of encouragement while expressing their appreciation.
“I don’t think I’ve ever expressed my appreciation in this way to these people who serve our country,” said T.J. Ferrer, Human Resources Director. “When I see them, I thank them for their service, but I’ve never done something like this, so it’s exciting for me.”
Dr. Pattie Cardenas-Adame, Vice President of Student Affairs, said she was inspired to participate in Operation Gratitude because her husband was an ER physician who relied heavily on first responders, and because her husband and father are both veterans who served in conflict.
“I felt it was important to reach out,” she said.
Donna Owens, Event Coordinator for Performing Arts, comes from a military family. Her father served during World War II, lying about his age to enlist, and her brother served during Desert Storm. Her nephew just returned home after serving on a ship stationed in Turkey. She said the letters they received from family members were more important than anyone could imagine.
“It was a lifeline,” she said. “And I feel it’s an honor and a privilege to participate today.”
Several veterans also stopped by the Student Union to express their thanks.
Tonia Smith, an Air Force veteran and EMCC graduate who works in the Veterans Services Center, wrote four letters: one for a deployed soldier, one for a veteran, one for a new recruit, and one for a first responder.
“I’m a veteran and my son had a Veterans Day parade back in November and I got to walk in it,” she said. “It was heartwarming taking all of these letters from the kids. I’m very emotional, so doing this for other people and pouring my heart into it, I feel like I should give back my feelings, because I can only imagine what they are feeling when they’re telling me thank you. And from someone who has personal experience with that, I want to share the love and really tell them how appreciative I am.”
Ramon Gonzalez, an Army veteran who just graduated from EMCC and works in the Veterans Services Center, wrote four letters: two to deployed troops, one to a recruit, and one to a first responder. In his letters to the recruits, he essentially told them the opposite of what they were bound to hear in basic training.
“In every service, one thing they always taught recruits was: Never volunteer for anything, stay quiet, and keep your head down. That way you can have a smooth transition through basic training,” he said. “Which is kind of what I did. But the advice I gave to the recruits was: Always volunteer, always speak up, and always be the first. Because I think it’s important for them, especially if they want to transition into becoming leaders, that they start in an environment just like that because that’s where they can learn a lot.”
Gonzalez received several letters, mostly from children, while he was serving and said they meant a lot to him.
“If we were having bad days, we would go and open the letters, and feel better,” he said. “Especially the letters from children because they write some of the funniest things you can imagine. It was always good to read something like that.”
Rubino will mail all of the letters and cards collected by EMCC to Operation Gratitude, which will then sort through them and put them in care packages to be mailed.
“It was so uplifting and inspiring,” Rubino said. “I hope to make Operation Gratitude an annual event.”