Joy Delivered to Over 150,000 Soldiers in a Single Box

Over the last 20 years, hundreds of thousands of American soldiers stationed overseas have picked up care packages at mail calls because of Wendy Rocca’s ceaseless dedication. It started with a single box Rocca crafted in 2004 for her deployed stepdaughter. Soon, Rocca would learn that a shocking number of military members lacked support and never received mail. 

“Who would think our troops aren’t well supplied? This is America,” says Rocca, a broker at Keller Williams Boston Northwest and president of Operation American Soldier (OAS) in Watertown, Mass. “I’ve got 200 boxes going out at the end of this month to a base in Iraq where they don’t have places to buy things and don’t have all the supplies they need.” 

Since being named a Good Neighbor Awards winner in 2010 with her husband, John, Rocca has multiplied her efforts with Operation American Soldier, packing and shipping more than 150,000 care packages for military personnel from a ginormous Victorian building called the Private Charles J. Shutt Marine Corps League Detachment.

“We’ve had letters from chaplains and staff sergeants saying this soldier was having a huge emotional issue and they got an OAS box with their name on it and their whole world changed,” explains Rocca. “They’re not alone, and people remember they’re out there.”

Thousands of Soldiers’ Lives Changed

“Wendy’s that glue that brings everybody together and helps everybody meet their goals,” says Jillian Tarr, Army veteran and warranty administrator at Grappone Incorporated/Ford Motor Company Service Department in Franklin, N.H. “[OAS is] for all the troops who don’t have families to send their love and support, and it helps create a more equitable and thriving community.”

Tarr, who was in the Army’s Military Police Corps (MP) from 2004 to 2012, began her involvement with OAS after meeting Rocca’s son 20 years ago. As the nonprofit grew, Tarr has seen thousands of volunteers help the organization blossom and support victims of the Boston Marathon Bombing, local veterans, and police and military events.

“You’d think, over time, that someone might wane or might try to shove off the duty onto somebody else, but Wendy has as much gusto 20 years in as she did on day one,” says Tarr. “That says a lot about her and how much she thinks this is important, with all of her kids and husband serving in the military.”

The wild growth from one box on her kitchen table was “unintentional,” says Rocca. After her stepdaughter started sending Rocca the names of soldiers who never received mail, “We started shipping more boxes. We weren’t anything officially until we won the Good Neighbor Award because it gave us credibility and funding.”

Pocket-Sized Notes Make the Difference 

The standout in each package is the personalized note: kind messages from volunteers reminding soldiers that someone cares, drawings from schoolchildren and a request for names of others who need moral support.

One example is the drawing that saved a 20-year-old female MP whose family wasn’t there for her. Rocca wrote to the soldier, who was on her second tour of duty, every day and sent packages with sundries and preschoolers’ drawings.

“She was the only female in the unit. She got to the point where she was going to end it, like many do. She’s sitting on the side of the road saying, ‘I’m not going home. I got nothing and no one to go home to,’” Rocca explains. “And then she took that folded up picture out of her pocket. She came home because she had that little picture and said, ‘Somebody cared enough to send that picture.’ This is why we do it —because how can you not?

“How would I be able to tell the next unit looking for support that we don’t think they’re important enough?” she adds. “How do I say, ‘I’m not gonna do this anymore?’ I just can’t.”

One of Tarr’s memorable moments was when she secured a list of soldiers from a 2008 Iraq deployment “because a lot of folks joining the military don’t have family, don’t expect to get mail,” she says. “Once they age out of the [foster] system, they’re trying to find a purpose. A lot of times they land in the military because it provides housing, stability, a career and a starting point to take off and come into their own.”

Weeks later, the Iraq unit’s Humvee mail truck delivered OAS packages by surprise to soldiers who “sat down on the ground right next to the Humvee and ripped open the boxes,” Tarr explains. “It was like kids in the candy store and was fantastic.” One soldier pulled Tarr aside to thank her.

Rocca remembers other heartwarming stories: the box of toy ukuleles that made a Hawaiian soldier cry as he strummed away; the volunteer who planned a future lunch outing with a soldier from her town; and the soldier who emailed saying, “I really appreciate the peanut butter. That was great. Thanks so much.” 

“It doesn’t only bless the recipient but also the people who are doing it,” Rocca says of the care packages.

Propelling Nonprofit Progress 

It’s Rocca’s ability to stand tall against adversity and “be the connection bridge” that drives her community involvement, Tarr says, adding that Rocca works 40- to 60-hour weeks.

Plus, Rocca is a people person. “She has that very outgoing, kind and friendly personality, very easy to approach, which makes a big difference,” says Tarr. “She’s always that person who’s willing to stop what she’s doing to help and be that bridge for someone to realize they can support the troops without supporting the administration or missions.”

The publicity from her Good Neighbor Award not only helped legitimize Rocca’s nonprofit, but “catapulted us into where we are now,” Rocca says. “I’ve got so many REALTORS® who’ve packed boxes, and they get letters or emails back and it changes the way they feel because it made an impact—and it’s huge knowing you helped somebody.”

She’s continued to view Operation American Soldier as a mission she’s been asked to do. And for pros who feel called to nonprofits work, Rocca has some advice: “You know how to run your real estate business, so if you want to start something, come up with a plan and get a few people to start it with you because you can’t do it alone. REALTORS® are giving people. I love what I do, and I love this community of people.”

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