The office has the look of a successful startup company--a dozen or so workers exuberantly assemble packages on a makeshift assembly line, surrounded by boxes and by parts that line the perimeter of the room, making it feel as if the walls are simultaneously closing in on them yet at the same time ready to burst at the seams into the suite next door. Demand is such that if enough product isn't shipped out the door today, the workers will have to tunnel their way out of the building.
Every corner of the room is filled to the brim but oddly there is no sense of chaos or claustrophobia, only organization and purpose, which would be unusual for a company that features a 100% volunteer workforce. Except this is not really a company. No products are being sold despite the frantic pace at which they are assembled and shipped.
This is For The Troops, a nonprofit organization in
The boxes that line the perimeter of the room are filled with gum, beef jerky, baby wipes, playing cards, and other simple items that mean little to us here but have the power to turn a homesick soldier's bad day into a good one.
Individuals and companies alike donate these items to For The Troops--a company will send over boxes full of thermoses that will end up on FTT's efficient assembly line. No space is wasted--the thermoses are filled with other items like socks, and candy is used instead of Styrofoam packing peanuts.
Other items are hand made. Volunteers collect various strips of smooth fabric and sew "neck coolers," which contain beads that can soak up water and can be worn around the neck to cool down a solider standing in 140 degree Iraqi heat while carrying 80 pounds of "battle rattle."
The volunteers, many of who served in the military, have family in the material, or both, realize that small, daily comforts aren't small at all. Baby wipes are in huge demand, since dust and dirt get everywhere--if a care package doesn't have baby wipes, it doesn't leave the building. Beef jerky is treated like a delicacy since its saltiness is craved by sweating soldiers whose bodies are depleted of that mineral.
The volunteers are also fully aware the soldiers are missing other things they need--things that aren't as tangible.
One woman assembles small packages of stationery, complete with an envelope and a pen. The blank pieces of paper invite the soldiers to write to someone they love. Another woman collects greeting cards of all types. In the weeks before Father's Day, FTT included cards for that holiday in their packages so soldiers could have something to send to their dads. She collects birthday cards for varying ages so a new father thousands of miles away can send his son or his daughter a card for their first, second, or third birthdays, no doubt inducing extra smiles for both sender and recipient as they are brought closer together despite their great distance.
The personal touch is important--each care package (called "we care packages", to convey gratitude to members of the military) is hand-signed by the person who assembled it. Letters from children are at the top of soldiers' wish lists, and they're in short supply during the summer. One soldier responded to a letter with a thank you from his unit, a photo of all of them standing around some military equipment, and a patch from a uniform.
In FTT's "library", a volunteer sifts through stacks of donated books for ones that are more likely to be enjoyed by a young soldier. Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton paperbacks make the cut, others that are less likely to generate interest are traded to local bookstores and the library for something more appropriate. Nothing is wasted.
Six years and 43,000 boxes later, FTT's founder Paula Cornell isn't slowing down. I asked her what FTT's biggest need is.
"Postage money, postage money, and postage money," she said.
FTT has already spent $115,000 in postage halfway through 2011, coming close to its 2010 total of $140,000. While there are many corporate sponsors eager to help out (amazingly, some refuse to) FTT pushes out 1,800 We Care packages a month and thus has a ravenous need for postage.
FTT goes out in the community to fundraise. For example, on Thursday, July 7th at the Junkyard Café, 15 percent of the bill will go to the charity.
The money is spent wisely--while there are other, more professional organizations that provide supplies to the troops, FTT does not have any paid staff. The three suites it occupies are donated by the building's owner, who also picks up most of the electricity bill.
Creativity, resourcefulness, frugality, and devotion characterize the organization. Not only is it a good group of people doing a good thing, it is living proof of the crucial role that charitable organizations play in society, and how, with no revenue other than what people are willing to give, one group can run circles around your average government program and feature an efficient model that even private companies would aspire to achieve.