“I am the oldest soldier in my unit and I can tell you after many deployments, this time of year can be hard on all the younger ones who deploy. Your thoughtfulness helps take the edge off of being away from home on the holidays.”
Messages like this are delivered regularly to the unassuming premises of Operation Shoebox, headquartered an hour northwest of Orlando. Founder Mary Harper receives letters and Facebook posts from media-saturated Afghanistan to lesser-known countries like Qatar, but the [insert age] year-old mother of [insert number of kids] started the organization as a project in her living room in 2002. On November 11, 2013, Operation Shoebox will fill its one millionth box while Fox News cameras roll. Harper still shakes her head in disbelief when she considers the global impact. “I never thought it would ever get this big, but after we were on CNN, MSNBC, The Today Show, Fox and Friends and Bill O’Reilly’s radio show, we got tons of support!” Operation Shoebox began when five of Harper’s children – and a son-in-law – were deployed simultaneously. “I was going crazy,” recalls Harper, “and my son said, ‘Mom! You have to stop crying. We’re going to do our job and come home!’ That was a wake-up call to me, that I needed to do something to help them instead of them worrying about me. So Operation Shoebox was born.” Powered by personal donors, corporate partners like Sam’s Club, the Operation Shoebox Thrift Store, and over 1,300 volunteers, the organization has sent care packages containing toiletries, entertainment, snacks and holiday items to troops deployed around the world, many in war zones. 100% of donations to the 501 (c) 3 nonprofit go to troops. Harper estimated that in 2010, Operation Shoebox shipped a whopping 90 tons. Volunteers range from retirees to high school students and from church groups to the Ocala Cannibals – a roller derby team. As the organization developed, Harper’s desire to support U.S. troops found new opportunity when she noticed the needs, not just of deployed service members, but of returning veterans as well – many of whom served under grinding multiple deployments. “We have moved into helping our homeless vets by partnering with organizations like Volunteers of America, where we helped to furnish 13 rooms, and we have been working with Vets Helping Vets to provide food.” Even as her vision expands, daily operations continue to highlight the same activity that started the enterprise: packing and sending care packages to troops around the world. Harper is convinced that receiving mail holds magic, “because more than the package itself is the thought that someone actually took time from their day to write a letter from home – complete strangers taking the time to say thank you!” And she knows the magic of a care package from personal experience: “one of the soldiers I shipped packages to was so appreciative for what we did for him and his unit that he packed a care package for me! I was so shocked and surprised to get that! It was so awesome to think that what I did for him and his troops was special enough for him to do the same for me when he was able to.” Meanwhile, as the holidays roll around, the military mother will quietly set to work on the next million.