As Carolyn Blashek knows only too well, good things come in small packages. The founder and motivating force behind Operation Gratitude, a nonprofit organization that sends care packages to American troops overseas, Blashek serves as an inspiring testimony to one woman's dedication to provide faith and hope to lonely soldiers.
Blashek is a Jewish mother in Encino who, like most Americans, was horrified by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. However, her reaction was slightly different than that of the average Jewish mother -- she tried to enlist in the military. She soon discovered that, at 46, she exceeded the age limit of 35, and "as a civilian there were very few opportunities to show your support to the military." She began volunteering at a dilapidated military lounge at LAX, until one day in March 2003 (the outset of the war with Iraq), a heart-wrenching talk with a despondent soldier inspired her to create a system to show soldiers that she cared.
"I'm going back to a war zone," she recalls him saying. "I just buried my mother, my wife left me and my child died as an infant. I have no one in my life. For the first time I don't think I'll make it back, but it really wouldn't matter because no one would even care."
Blashek was devastated as she realized that many of the soldiers are fighting in foreign countries without support systems.
"What gives someone the strength to survive when bullets are flying?" she wondered. "The belief that someone cares about you."
She decided to express her compassion by sending food, entertainment, and personal letters in packages.
"The Jewish mother in me had this need to communicate concern and love and appreciation," she said with a little laugh. "It's that sense of nurturing... the Jewish mother element."
Primarily through word of mouth, the project snowballed. What began three years ago as a humble living room project financed and organized by her alone exploded into an organization that coordinates donation drives for packages across the country.
"Now I've sent over 111,000 packages in three years," she said.
After Operation Gratitude's third annual Patriotic Drive, which is to take place at the end of this month, she hopes to reach 150,000.
Blashek vividly recalls an emotional encounter she had with Kayitz Finley -- the son of her local rabbi, Mordecai Finley of Congregation Ohr HaTorah -- to whom she sent packages while he served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both a soldier serving in a distant land and a member of her local community, he became her inspiration. "The first most emotional experience I had through all this was when he came home and he and I got to meet in person for the first time," she said. "It was at a Saturday morning service. We saw each other, threw our arms around each other and couldn't stop hugging. Neither of us could get any words out. We both just kept saying 'thank you' to each other. It was very powerful."
Operation Gratitude's Third Annual Patriotic Drive continues at the California Army National Guard Armory, 17330 Victory Blvd, Van Nuys on June 17-18. Items requested for donation can be found on the website www.opgratitude.com under "Wish List."