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Operation Homefront CEO and President, John I. Pray, Jr. with Ken Ruff, Vice President of national accounts at Beam Suntory after Ken was given a cornerstone award for his work in making Holiday Meals for Military come to life.

By Erin Patterson.

It was late the night before Thanksgiving in 2009. Ken Ruff, the vice president of national accounts at Beam Suntory, was exhausted. He and his family had just finished the long drive from their home in Chicago to their hometown of Utica, New York. Ken’s daughter was sick with a cold, so he went to the grocery store to buy some cold medicine for her, looking forward to relaxing with his family the following day. While waiting in line at the grocery store to buy the medicine, he was so travel-weary he almost didn’t notice what was happening in front of him.

A young family—a soldier in uniform, his wife, and their small child—couldn’t afford to pay for their groceries. They had picked out a small piece of turkey, a loaf of bread, a box of stuffing, and a can of cranberry sauce for their Thanksgiving meal the following day, but they didn’t have enough money to buy even these few items. When Ken realized what was happening, he stepped in and paid for the groceries, insisting in spite of the young family’s polite refusal.

“It came out to a total of something like $15,” Ken said. “It was an easy thing to do.”

Ken didn’t think much of the situation at first. He was just happy to have been able to help the family, who was incredibly grateful for the gift. It wasn’t until he got back to his car in the parking lot that he was struck by an idea. It bothered him that there are so many military families who struggle during the holidays, and he wanted to do something about it.

“Christmas is a wonderful time to unplug and be with families and friends, and a lot of these people couldn’t entertain in their homes, they had to go to the base to get a holiday meal and if they had a grandparent or someone from their extended family they wouldn’t be included,” Ken remembers. “They are challenged every day of the year. It’s a very hard life for the military. During the holidays, it’s even that much more of a need because you have presents, meals, etc., so that need is even higher. Providing groceries means that they don’t have to pay for it, so there’s that sense of relief to enjoy being at home with their family.”

Ken called up his financial manager at Beam Suntory and told him to cancel the order of holiday gift baskets, which the company usually gave out to customers around the holidays. He knew that would make dollars available to make a difference in the lives of military families.

“I knew that it was a very real need that these military families don’t have the resources to have a nice meal at home. It spawned the idea to develop program. We knew that this would literally bring joy to the families,” Ken said.

Then, Ken called up Operation Homefront. Beam Suntory already had a long-standing relationship with Operation Homefront, so Ken knew that this was an organization he could trust to partner with on this program.

Ken went in front of the Beam Suntory leadership to present what would be an extraordinary idea: to create a holiday meals program in partnership with Operation Homefront. Beam Suntory was completely on board and wanted to support Ken as much as they could. The program aligned perfectly with Beam’s corporate values of taking care of the communities where their employees live and work.

With the support of both the Beam Suntory leadership and Operation Homefront, Ken now had just four weeks to pull together the holiday meals program before Christmas. He recruited different partners to donate money, food, or volunteers, and ultimately gave groceries to 500 military families. As more and more people heard about the program, they wanted to get involved and help out for the following year.

Since the beginning, the program has grown every year, delivering more meals to more military families in need. It began expanding into different bases around the country, bringing in more donations and helping even more families. The volunteers started to make the events more exciting for the families, setting up Christmas decorations and even bringing in Santa Claus for the kids. In 2015, the program delivered holiday meals to 8,500 military families. And this year, the program is expected to serve more than 12,000 military families.

Ken attributes much of the program’s development to the many partners that have jumped in and given financial donations or donations of food or time.

“Nobody thought this program would grow as much as it did. As the saying goes, it takes a community,” Ken said.

One of the main reasons why Beam Suntory has continued to partner with Operation Homefront over the years is its fiscal responsibility. 92% of Operation Homefront’s donations go directly to their programs, such as Holiday Meals for Military.

“We believe in what we’re doing with Operation Homefront,” said Emily York, the corporate communications manager at Beam Suntory. “We are very responsible with our philanthropic dollars and we want to put them to good use. The commitment to Operation Homefront and the belief in what you guys are doing is shared to the very top of our organization.

Looking back on the past few years, Ken is proud of the impact that the holiday meals program has had on so many military families, and he is incredibly grateful for the partnerships that have helped the program to continue to grow.

“It was fate being in that grocery store and having the good fortune to think of an idea to do something positive about it. I am very impressed with everything that Operation Homefront does for this program, and I’m very proud that Operation Homefront continues it,” Ken said. “The program is what it is because of Operation Homefront. I’m the first one to tell you that the support of Beam is very important, but the people at Operation Homefront make it happen. I’m really looking forward to a great holiday season. I truly believe that this will be our best year ever.”

 

 

kathy-cox-blog

Pictured left to right: Walmart Executive Vice-President of Logistics Chris Sultemeier, Senior Manager at the Walmart Foundation Kathy Cox, Vice President Walmart Foundation Julie Gehrki and Operation Homefront President and CEO, John I. Pray, Jr.

Today we are joined by Kathy Cox, a senior manager at the Walmart Foundation, who shares the connection Walmart has with our military communities and the Foundation’s involvement in Holiday Meals for Military. 

By Erin Patterson.

The Holiday Meals for Military program can trace its start to the actions of a noble man who was moved to help a young military family pay for their groceries on the night before Thanksgiving seven years ago. One meal for one family gradually turned into hundreds, then thousands of meals for military families across the U.S. This year, the Holiday Meals for Military program will provide nearly 12,000 meals to families around the country.

The program would not be what it is today without the help of key partners, such as the Walmart Foundation. Kathy Cox, a senior manager at the Walmart Foundation, has led the strategy and grant-making for veteran and military families for the last 16 years. When she heard about the Holiday Meals for Military program, she knew that it was something Walmart wanted to support.

“Walmart and the Walmart Foundation have worked really hard since the beginning of this conflict [in Iraq and Afghanistan] to stay close to the pulse of our service members and our military families,” Kathy said. “In 2009, you’ve got American personnel and their families that had some real stress and strain. We had folks that were losing their loved ones, we had military service members who were injured. There were some real—both physical and financial—hardships that these families were dealing with. So for the holidays, what we wanted to be able to do was lift some of that burden.”

kathycoxblogimage2For Kathy and for the Walmart Foundation, it was the perfect time and the perfect program. Even more, she was very excited to be working with Operation Homefront. Kathy loved that Operation Homefront had strong relationships with military bases around the country, which meant that they would be able to specifically identify the families who most needed this type of program. At the same time, she was impressed with Operation Homefront’s fiscal responsibility. With 92% of financial donations going directly to programs like Holiday Meals for Military, Kathy knew that Operation Homefront was leveraging the Walmart Foundation’s dollars to have the highest positive impact on military families.

“We wouldn’t be investing if we weren’t certain that our military families were being served and were being served in the most efficient and effective way that makes use of our both in-kind and financial support,” Kathy said.

Looking out for service members and their families comes naturally to the Walmart Foundation. The Walmart family is filled with military families, and they have a lot of men and women who have served in the military and who are now a part of Walmart’s workforce. Furthermore, Kathy noted that military families often make up the community surrounding many Walmart stores around the country.

“There’s quite an alignment with military families anyway because that’s part of our DNA. If you’re surrounded by military families, you want to make sure that you’re supporting military families,” Kathy said.

Because the military is already such an integral part of Walmart’s community, the Foundation’s involvement in the Holiday Meals for Military program began quite organically, starting at the associate-level and moving up through the company.

“While the Foundation has helped with the corporate dollars, most recently in this campaign to make in-kind food donations, it’s our associates who have led. It’s the managers of stores that have been aligned with bases and military families that have a sincere desire to be that store of the community that serves these military families and helps lessen the challenge of putting a holiday meal on the table,” Kathy said.

Even though it started at a grassroots level, Walmart has an emotional investment—not just financial—in this program. Kathy remembers one year when she volunteered her Friday night to help prepare the bags of ingredients for the families. A young lady with two children came to register her family, and Kathy remembers how she could see that this mother had a lot weighing on her mind. As she went through the registration process, she was told that she and her family were the recipients of Christmas gifts that had been donated by another organization.

“And that’s when her resolve just broke,” Kathy remembers. “Once she regained her composure, she said, ‘You just have no idea. First, I had no idea how I was going to put a holiday meal on the table for my family. Now you’re telling me that also I have gifts that I’ll be able to share with my family. You have no idea how this will change our entire holiday season.’”

As we settle into the holiday season this year, Kathy reminds us that it’s important to be intentional in remembering our military families. Many of them are far from home and worried about whether or not they will be able to provide a happy, memorable holiday season for their children.

“Not all military families are base and with our all-volunteer force we have military families around us all the time,” Kathy noted. “I think we have to be intentional to try to get to know those families and to make sure that we’re being inclusive and recognize that not only are our military service members serving and sacrificing, these military families at home are serving and sacrificing right alongside them.”

pearlharborblog1Today is the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

One could argue that every generation has its defining moment. But there are a few events that so fundamentally change the world, in ways so profound, that they echo in our consciousness and our hearts…even seven decades later.

The attack on December 7, 1941 is one of them.

Though not ignorant of what was happening in the world at the time, Americans at the time felt secure, convinced to a large degree that the country was untouchable.

We weren’t.

The vast majority of us were not born when the nation was attacked in such a shocking manner. For many Americans, even their parents weren’t born. It can be easy, as the years go on and our World War II veterans pass on, to let the day pass unnoticed. There may be some who wonder why it is brought up at all.
But though we may not have witnessed the events of that day nor experienced directly the three years of global war and unfathomable loss of life that would follow, make no mistake. We have all been shaped by it.

As the Scottish philosopher and historian, Thomas Carlyle wrote “The Present is the living sum-total of the whole Past.”

pearlharboremembrancedaySo, we acknowledge the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor because we must remember that the cost of freedom is eternal vigilance. That cost was born by our WWII veterans then, and by millions more before and after. We can see the cost under the waves in Hawaii, in rows at Arlington, at our VA hospitals, and in the eyes of our loved ones who have seen war. Here at Operation Homefront, we see it mirrored in the experiences of the families we serve. The events of September 11th were their Pearl Harbor, and like the generations that went to war before them, these military and veteran families have paid a high cost. Our mission was born from the knowledge of the cost that would be paid because we remembered the lessons of history.

We acknowledge the anniversary because we must remember that our country is strong, and though we may be brought to our knees or reel from a blow, we get back up. We are reminded of one of America’s most dear ideals: that no matter what your circumstances of birth, or what destiny has in store, there always remains the opportunity to overcome them and forge your own path.

We acknowledge the anniversary because we must remember, every day, to endeavor to deserve the gift given to us by our military veterans. Our country may not be perfect, but we should never stop trying to be better. Never stop trying to earn the sacrifice made on that day and in days that followed.

Please join us today in sharing a message of honor or remembrance. You can post here in the comments or on Facebook or Twitter. We’d also like to share some online resources where you can learn more about Pearl Harbor and the 75th commemoration.

pearlharborblog2The official website commemorating National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day and the 75th Anniversary.

National WWII Museum and their dedicated page for the 75th anniversary.

Smithsonian Learning Lab Pearl Harbor page.

By John I. Pray, Jr.,  Brig Gen, USAF (Ret.), President & CEO of Operation Homefront.

coinblogpic1Military challenge coins are a time-honored tradition. Leaders at all levels in the military, up to and including the President of the United States as Commander in Chief, bestow coins to select recipients to recognize excellence or commemorate special achievement.

Like many current and former military members, I have lots of coins in my collection– each one serving as a tangible reminder of an important moment or event in my professional life. While each coin is important and meaningful to me, two in particular stand out.

The first is a coin I received from General Wayne Downing, Commander of the US Special Operations Command.

Downing was an innovative and dynamic leader whom I admire greatly and his coin is a daily reminder of his passion to serve his country and his understanding of the challenges military families face while loved ones are deployed. I do my best to reflect that same passion and understanding every day at Operation Homefront.

coinblogpic2The second is a coin I had the honor of presenting when I was the Commander of the 436th Airlift Wing at Dover Air Force Base.

Over the course of my two year tour, I presented the Dover Coin to over 200 people for individual and team excellence.

The etchings on the coin define the 436th Airlift Wing as “America’s Preeminent Expeditionary Airlift Team” and present its’ values of integrity, excellence, and service; values that are shared by the team I now lead at Operation Homefront.

I treasure both of these coins. They represent my commitment to my country, the honor of military tradition, and my dedication to those I have served with and for.

John and Operation Homefront Board of Directors member Angelo Lombardi and friends from Cracker Barrel with Operation Homefront challenge coins.

John and Operation Homefront Board of Directors member Angelo Lombardi and friends from Cracker Barrel Old Country Store with Operation Homefront challenge coins.

Join in the conversation by sharing a picture/description of your favorite military coin. Through Facebook or Twitter, please use the hashtag #militarycoins or click the link to Leave a Comment here.

Returning from the holiday weekend, we found this message in our inbox:

“I just want to say thank you for sponsoring the Thanksgiving Meal this year. My son was born last Friday and funds have been a little tight this month. Having a wonderful home cooked meal meant the world to me and my wife. Thank you so much!”

There is no better feeling than to know that you made a difference in someone’s life when they needed some help. At Operation Homefront, we are privileged to witness this every day, thanks to the generosity of our fellow Americans. While we see the willingness to give year round, it is particularly evident during the holiday season.

givingtuesday2We are immeasurably grateful for this support, for this time of year also brings an increase in requests for assistance from our military and wounded, ill, and injured veterans. Since our inception, Operation Homefront has distributed over 57,000 holiday meals and served over 172,000 military children through our Holiday Toy programs.  But beyond holiday assistance, we warm homes, keep vehicles running, and ensure cupboards aren’t bare. To date, nearly 30,000 families have been helped through our emergency financial assistance program. Still more have been served through our rent-free transitional housing, Homes on the Homefront, the wildly successful Back-To-School Brigade, and more.

All thanks to the support of our community, partners, and donors.

Today is #GivingTuesday. For the 5th year, people the world over are joining together for one day to give back. Last year, on one day, over 700,000 individuals raised $116,000,000!

Please help our critical work continue by joining us this #GivingTuesday by #GivingStrength to our military, veteran and transitioning families when it is needed the most.

givingtuesday1Give Time:

With the help of our 3,200+ volunteers, we give strength to military families across the nation every single day through our programs. But there are always more families to support. You can help. Sign-up today to be an Operation Homefront volunteer to support military families in your area throughout the year.

Give Support:

We get requests from military families every day who need some assistance. Help us give strength and support to our service members when they need it the most. From help with a utility bill, to food assistance, to keeping a roof over a family’s head, you can help make life just a little easier for our military families and wounded warriors. 92% of all our donations made go directly to programs and services to support military families.  

16givingstrength_smpost_640x640Give Your Voice:

Email your Message of Thanks to info@operationhomefront.net or post a photo of a service member, veteran or military family member you know with their name, branch of service and when they served on the Operation Homefront Facebook page with #GivingStrength. You can also submit your personal stories for a chance to be featured on “Operation Homefront Strong Families” or our “Thank Military” Thursdays.

Learn more about our Giving Strength campaign by visiting www.operationhomefront.net/givingstrength

About Giving Tuesday:

In 2012, the New York’s 92nd Street Y, in partnership with the United Nations Foundation, pondered the idea of harnessing the potential of social media and the generosity of people around the world to bring about real change in their communities. They decided to promote a day of giving worldwide. You can learn more about #GivingTuesday at www.givingtuesday.org

 

 

 

Giving Strength.

3a3087d5-7199-4826-982d-7bd9b50a02cbAs Thanksgiving approaches, those of us in military and veteran communities will gather around tables and give thanks, and yet, among all the hustle and bustle, something may be missing.  This could be a loved one deployed or unable to come home, a loved one who never made it home, or a feeling of loss and disconnection for some families who are transitioning from service or coping with injuries from war or years of service.

As many are wont to do when times are hard, these families will stay busy and do their best to plaster a smile on our faces during the holidays. But the feeling of something missing, the uncertainty of the future, and the heaviness of heart will  often remain despite these valiant efforts.

But valiant efforts will be made. Commands overseas and deployed will do their best to be a substitute family, and so will our communities back home.  Families with a deployed loved one will add more chairs to their tables, inviting other families with deployed loved ones to join them.  Others in our community, some with no military connection whatsoever, just love of country and service, will open their hearts and their homes to service members stationed near them that can’t be with their own families. Some will continue to honor service by volunteering at community events to serve their neighbors in need on Thanksgiving, with hearts filled with gratitude and drive to serve others above self.

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Our Holiday Meals for Military events will distribute over 11000 meal to military families across the country, including 1600 just distributed in Texas this weekend.

At Operation Homefront, most of us have personally experienced how our community can come together to fill a void. 85% of our team at Operation Homefront are veterans or families of active duty.  Almost 50% of our staff had a parent who served – giving us a unique connection with the military children we support.

We are honored to see the tradition of service continue year after year through support and response to our Holiday Meals for Military program and the messages and comments we receive about ways to reach out and help military and veteran families during the holidays. But, mostly we know this to be true because this is just what the military and veteran community does.

They look out for each other. They give each other strength.

This Thanksgiving, we are thankful for the opportunity to serve, for the chance to fill a need, whether it be a boost of encouragement or the relief of a burden. We invite you to express your thanks and gratitude. We all have friends, family, loved ones or neighbors who are serving or have served. Join us in giving strength by honoring and recognizing our military and their families through our #GivingStrength initiative. Here are some ideas:

  • Submit your personal stories for a chance to be featured on “Operation Homefront Strong Families” or our “Thank Military” Thursdays.
  • Email your Message of Thanks to info@operationhomefront.net or post a photo of a service member, veteran or military family member you know with their name, branch of service and when they served on the Operation Homefront Facebook page with #GivingStrength.
  • Support a current need of families who have reached out to us for help. This time of year, we see a dramatic increase in requests for assistance. Any amount you can contribute goes directly to helping a struggling military, transitioning or wounded warrior family.
  • Serve. Sign-up today to be an Operation Homefront volunteer to support military families in your area throughout the year.

Go to www.operationhomefront.net/givingstrength  to see ways YOU can be #GivingStrength and doing your part for military families in your community and around the country.

Happy Thanksgiving from the Operation Homefront family!

mason-on-deck

The Masons were one of 750 military families invited to attend “Honor. Family. Fun.” hosted by Carnival Cruise Lines in New York City. The event featured a special concert by Carrie Underwood and a naming ceremony for the newest ship in their fleet, the Carnival Vista. See more pictures here

Shay Mason served in the military as an Army Counterintelligence Agent and as a Russian linguist…and then she completed her active duty service in 1989.

Shay met Gary while at Howard University and earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Print Journalism. They fell in love, got married and then Gary decided to join the military.

Gary enlisted in the Army for a number of reasons: a better life, travel, opportunity, future stability for his family, and to serve his country. Shay and Gary agreed that Gary would serve, hoping to make the Army a career. During his years of service, they welcomed four children into their family.

As an infantry officer, Gary was deployed three times to the Middle East. His first deployment was to Iraq in 2008. His second and third were to Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011. The last two missions were Special Forces and after serving for fifteen years, Gary had to retire in 2015.

He medically retired with an honorable discharge due to injuries he sustained from his last deployment. He suffered from back and ankle injuries and battles the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Shay became his full-time primary caregiver.

While Gary was transitioning out of the military, the condominium they were renting received serious water damage that made it uninhabitable. They had no place to call home and were forced to stay at a local hotel. Their financial situation became dire, causing additional stress for the family of six.

While living at a local hotel, they heard about Operation Homefront Villages and the rent-free transitional housing program in Gaithersburg, Maryland. They applied and were accepted and still currently reside there.

The Village provides them with a furnished apartment with all rent and utilities covered. In addition, families who stay at the Village get financial counseling and attend support groups with other wounded veteran families to help them make a successful transition to civilian life.

“Living at Operation Homefront’s Village is an opportunity – a tremendous blessing and stress relief,” said Gary. “We can save money, repair our credit, and restablize our children and focus on getting healthier as a family.”

So far, as a result of being at the Village, they have saved $14,000, and paid off $6,000 in debt.

The Masons are definitely on their way to a strong, stable future. Two of their kids are attending college and the two younger children are doing well in their respective schools.

“We have had a great time living there, there are other military families living at the Village and we bonded,” said Gary. “We are in communication with them and we hang out. There is a sense of community and it makes it easy for us…there is so much veteran support.”

Gary and Shay have started a family business to create media support kits. They will use these to help other military families navigate the unique challenges of military life, using their past experience to benefit others.

Join in the conversation with us as we celebrate those veterans among us, by sharing stories of your own. Through Facebook or Twitter, please use the hashtag #11days11stories to share your own inspirational story of a veteran in your life

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