Veterans Request | Active-Duty Request | Community Involvement

Help Support Operation Renovation!

Help Support Operation Renovation!In September of 2022, we purchased a building at 2017 Pennsylvania Avenue, West Mifflin PA 15122. So far we have renovated the work rooms for our Active-Duty “Wishlist” program, Veteran “Welcome Home” program, installed a brand new roof, HVAC and electrical systems. This work was completed through the generosity of GBU Life, Home Depot, The Jefferson Regional Foundation and the hard work and sweat effort of our volunteer team and members of American Legion Post 712.

As you can see, the building needs a lot of work! We’re leaving this part of the renovation to the pros and we need your help to complete renovation of the main event space, kitchen, pantry, bathrooms and a special private space for veterans we call the “Veterans Lounge”. Once complete, veterans will have FREE ACCESS to events, benefits, resources and will be able to use our veterans lounge to meet with case workers or just chill away from the crowd at larger events. All food, beverages, events and activities will be provided at NO CHARGE to the veteran.

You can help our local veterans by donating to this special campaign. We want to provide our veterans with a place they can socialize, relax, get information or just enjoy a cup of coffee and a light meal.

July 1st marks our 20th anniversary and our goal is to hold our Grand Opening/20th Anniversary Event by the end of July. We are excited to bring resources and a gathering place to the veterans living in and around the Mon Valley of Western PA. By contributing to our Building Renovation campaign, you will make a significant positive impact on their lives. What better way is there to say THANK YOU for your service and sacrifice!

 

Monica Orluk, CEO Podcast Interview

Yinz Are Good shares all of the good stuff that’s going on out there and celebrates the good people who are making it happen. Based in Pittsburgh, PA, Host Tressa Glover chats with folks who are helping those in their communities, shares listeners’ emails of gratitude and acts of kindness, and encourages us all to find new ways to connect with one another.

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The Power of Care: Operation Troop Appreciation

Operation Troop Appreciation is a local, volunteer organization built to fill the gaps of providing services and material support to U.S. Military

by Anastasia Williams

When Kevin was 17 years old, he told his mom, “I’m not going to war.” He told her to convince her to sign the papers — papers which would make him a member of the United States Army. Kevin says she begged him not to go, but he wasn’t worried — he was excited. Kevin said he wasn’t always the most motivated high school student and he felt college wasn’t an option.

Kevin wanted to do something worthwhile and the Army recruiter who visited his high school in Virginia got his attention by talking about the potential economic opportunities that could come from joining. Kevin imagined himself driving down the road in a red Toyota sports car.  He wasn’t thinking about any of the other expenses that would come out of his salary. Next thing he knew, he was hugging his mom, begging her to sign the papers. His mother pushed away her worry and signed.

Kevin was stationed all over the country:  Washington, California, Louisiana. He had nearly finished his two-year enlistment and was counting down the days until he could go home. He hadn’t gone to war and he said one of the worst things he faced was not being able to shower for 13 days while stationed in the heat of the Louisiana swamps.

After the attacks on September 11, 2001, and with just three months left in his enlistment, Kevin was sent to Iraq. He felt the danger and knew that life was tenuous with guns pointed at him in the middle of the desert. Kevin’s three more months turned into eight more. He spent 239 days in combat.

Kevin’s promise to his mother had been broken. When Kevin returned to the US after his tour, he struggled mightily to re-adjust to civilian life.

Sherry Einhaus, a long-time Bethel Park resident, is an insurance agent, a part-time caregiver, and now the Chief Operating Officer of Operation Troop Appreciation (OTA) . For eight years, she was a Hillcrest Christian Academy volunteer mom, but when her son graduated and headed to high school, it was time for her to move on, too.

“I had this military thing in my head that just kept telling me military,” Einhaus said.

She called numerous organizations then wondered why six organizations hadn’t called her back. Couldn’t they use her help? She was driving home one day in 2016 and she heard an ad on the radio for an organization named OTA. She wanted to know more.

OTA is a multi-faceted, nonprofit organization, based in West Mifflin, PA. The organization focuses on serving both veterans in Western Pennsylvania and active-duty military personnel. One of the programs for active-duty service members is filling requests from soldiers. Troops send a wish list and OTA volunteers make packages with the items and ship them off to the troops. These packages can include any number of items, from equipment to candy. The boxes often include items one might assume the military provides to soldiers — things like pillows, socks, clothing, summer gear, protein powder and beef jerky.

All enlisted troops receive a salary which depends on their rank and years of service, ranging from $25,790.40 to $112,827.60 a year. Soldiers also receive allowances to help pay for housing, food, equipment, and other needs. Still, the allowances do not always cover everything, which means that soldiers (usually those at a lower rank, often on the front lines, in harm’s way), sometimes struggle to cover basic expenses that need to be paid out of pocket.

OTA is there to fill the gaps and provide soldiers with tailor-fit resources, rather than one-size-fits-all. It’s all custom and unique. But the items that OTA sends do not just bring comfort and pleasure. Some are necessary for survival.

A military unit stationed in the endless desert was desperate because they were unable to determine their precise location. OTA responded and sent GPS watches, which allowed them to better navigate the vast terrain.

Over the past 18 years, OTA has served over 200,000 troops and veterans between the Active-Duty Program and Welcome Home Program. One of the reasons OTA is able to reach numerous troops and veterans is by working with other organizations, one of them being PAServes . PAServes is a program based in Pittsburgh as part of AmericaServes, a larger organization aimed at helping veterans. PAServes acts as a middleman to OTA, helping them locate and contact those in need.

Einhaus loves the fact that OTA is completely volunteer —  absolutely no salaries are included in OTA’s budget. She began as a regular volunteer, boxing care packages, and helping out at events. Over time, she took on more responsibility, eventually becoming OTA’s COO and Program Manager, planning and managing events such as the Bike Run and the Christmas Party.

“If we were to take a paycheck then that much less money goes out to the military and that is unacceptable,” Einhaus said.

*****

Sherry believes she was meant to meet a man who was a sniper in the Army. She was ambivalent, but created an online dating profile; maybe she was just wanting to be more social after COVID quarantines. She clicked on one profile of a man on a motorcycle, from southwestern PA, and they started making small talk. Sherry told him that she worked for a military organization.

“Oh,” he said dismissively.

“What does that mean?” Sherry asked.

He told her about his chronic nightmares–they were something that he had to learn to live with after working as a sniper in an active combat zone in the Middle East. He told her about his 20-year battle to obtain services he deserved from the VA.

He told her, “Nobody helps veterans.”

Most importantly, he needed his VA benefits and Sherry could provide a bridge for him to navigate that. She connected him with a friend who was a former U.S. Navy veteran; her friend had his own struggles with the VA and now helps other veterans complete the requisite and often confusing forms needed to get the benefits they deserve. It’s his therapy, it’s his way of not thinking about his own nightmares. With their help, the former sniper was able to access more VA benefits in one year than he had received in the 20 years previous.

According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is more common in veterans than civilians and about around seven-percent of veterans develop PTSD at some point. Working under stressful, dangerous conditions, maintaining vigilance takes a toll. Some suffered severe injuries; some witnessed things that are hard to imagine. People with PTSD experience constant arousal, they experience flashbacks ; many self-isolate in an effort to avoid triggers. Some turn to drugs and alcohol — they are 14 times more likely to be diagnosed with substance use disorders (also according to the Department of Veterans Affairs).

The agencies that are there to help, sometimes, just don’t. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is part of the United States government responsible for providing benefits to U.S. veterans and their families. Some benefits include health care, life insurance, and disability benefits. VA employees at the Veterans Health Administration serve over 9 million veterans .

However, securing those benefits can be like navigating a haunted house maze. A former Army sniper said, “You don’t see nothing [from the VA] for six months and then when you do see something, [the VA] ask[s] you a question that they screwed up anyway.”

His frustration is not uncommon.

OTA helped him with smaller things, too.

“[OTA] got me items for my house. They got me a bed mattress … they helped me immensely when I wasn’t able to get it myself,” he said.

Sherry says the goal is to make each vet, “feel like a human being.”

Kevin, the U.S. army sergeant who had spent nearly eight months fighting in Iraq, was still a young man when he returned from active duty. He also says that there are gaps in coverage — gaps in who gets help and who doesn’t. He felt like he had fallen through the cracks, himself. He was battling PTSD. He became homeless. But he did land a job in western Pennsylvania and through that job he met Einhaus.

An important facet of OTA is their Welcome Home Program, designed to help veterans who are home.

OTA provides taxi rides to veterans for medical appointments, which removes a financial burden and also allows veterans who suffer from PTSD to avoid stressful situations like riding on a crowded bus full of strangers and loud noises. They also provide a Welcome Home Kit which contains necessities like a bed, toiletries, food, water, and cooking supplies.

Kevin was in almost constant pain, a consequence of sleeping on the floor of his tiny apartment night after night, but he never asked for help.

He came home one day to find a bed, plus toilet paper, food, and other items OTA provided. It was Einhaus who made sure he had everything, all the way down to the shower curtain rings.

“You need anything, you call me,” he remembered she told him, before wrapping him a hug.

OTA’s mission is to fill these tangible gaps for soldiers and veterans, but in doing the work, lasting relationships are formed. Einhaus isn’t superhuman. She gets tired. She needs rest. But she’s always motivated by the next letter, the next email, the next phone call. A call for help inspires her to keep up the work.

Kevin is good now. He has a home, a job, a college degree, and a love and talent for painting. Einhaus still calls.

A part of Kevin hates these calls. He doesn’t like to ask other people to do things for him. But he also loves these calls because he knows that with each call, he has a real friend in Sherry.

Kevin says calls from Einhaus go like this recent one:  “Hey, you good, Kev? Do you need anything? I got a case of water here that I can drop off at 6:00 tonight.”

“Just a case of water,” he told her.

“You sure? I got hoagies here too,” Sherry responded.

“Well, okay.” It’s hard for Kevin to say no to Einhaus.

“Operation Troop Appreciation: they help vets and that’s a fact and I will die with my flag on that,” Kevin said.

 

Lead photo of Kevin at an OTA outing at PNC Park courtesy of Anastasia Williams

Anastasia Williams is a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh

Author’s Note:

This piece is part of a larger piece that I wrote for a creative nonfiction class at the University of Pittsburgh. I focused on the fact that Sherry and OTA help veterans in western PA. However, Sherry’s community reach is far greater as she helps educate people on some of the issues facing veterans and active-military personnel. One of the ways she does this is by working with high school students to fulfill volunteer hours needed for National Honors Society.

After speaking with Sherry, I knew that she was going to be the focal point of my essay because the effort and time that she puts in is too special to not share. I had no clue that she would spend so much time meeting with me and connecting me with veterans to interview for this piece. She educated me on how to speak with veterans, and the importance of protecting their privacy. Many of the veterans I interviewed shared with me their deeply personal experiences. For this reason, their last names have not been included throughout this piece.

 

The post The Power of Care: Operation Troop Appreciation first appeared on Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism .

Operation Troop Appreciation Reaches a Milestone of Serving 200,000+ Troops and Veterans

When Operation Troop Appreciation (OTA) shipped its first round of care packages to a platoon of National Guard soldiers who were deployed to the Middle East during the Iraq War, the initial intent was to quickly meet an immediate need.

“OTA’s founder Kristen Holloway learned that some of our troops needed moisture wicking clothing to stay cool in the extreme heat,” said Monica Orluk, who is a founding member, and now serves as the organization’s chief executive officer. “Kristen mobilized a small team of volunteers from the Pittsburgh area who began sending Under Armor® T-shirts, personal hygiene supplies, snacks and other necessities to troops who were fighting in Iraq and other hot spots in the Middle East. Our plan was to continue sending care packages until the war ended. We didn’t anticipate what would happen next.”

Eighteen years later, OTA has served more than 200,000 active-duty troops and veterans representing all branches of the U.S. military, including the National Guard and the Reserves. Monica added, “OTA has achieved such phenomenal growth that it is now ranked among the 10 top-rated veteran nonprofits by Military.com.”

“All of us at OTA are proud of reaching this remarkable milestone,” said Orluk. “We couldn’t have served so many troops and veterans without the help of volunteers, private individuals, small businesses and corporate sponsors who provide financial support, participate in collection drives and help organize special events. It’s heartwarming to see how many people have continued to rally behind our troops and veterans.”

The cornerstone of OTA is its Active-Duty Military Support Project. Modeled after charities such as Make-a-Wish, this program enables troops to submit wish lists and ask for items such as tactical gear, blankets, socks, T-shirts, space heaters, newspapers, sports and fitness equipment, video gaming, computers, musical instruments, phone cards, snacks and personal hygiene supplies. OTA’s distinct difference, compared to other organizations, is they are fulfilling specific requests from military units via their web site. A recent request that OTA received was to provide clothing to troops and civilians who are receiving care at military hospitals and need clothing.

“The size of each order varies,” said Orluk. “We could be serving a battalion of 10,000, a platoon of 12 or anything in between. Regardless of how many soldiers, sailors and aviators we are serving, this program gives troops an opportunity to ask for items that help contribute to their health, welfare and morale.”

Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Claycomb remembers when his platoon received its first shipment of care packages in Iraq.

“It was like Christmas in July,” said Claycomb who recently retired as a Readiness Non-Commissioned Officer for the Pennsylvania National Guard. “We looked forward to getting the packages because you couldn’t drive to a convenience store in Baghdad for every supply. I can’t tell you enough how much OTA helped to improve the quality of our lives.”

Today, Claycomb is one of OTA’s most passionate volunteers, serving on OTA’s Board of Directors and is a guest speaker at functions and events to promote awareness about OTA.

“OTA has impacted my own life and the lives of many other troops in a big way,” said Claycomb. “I want to do everything I can to help this wonderful organization reach even more troops and veterans.”

OTA is also continuing to help American soldiers once they return home. Its Welcome Home Program supports veterans and their families who need assistance to defray costs associated with establishing a new home. The Welcome Home Kit includes all new essentials such as beds, pots and pans, dishes, laundry supplies, towels and sheets, and cleaning supplies. Veterans can also arrange for transportation to take them to doctor’s appointments, counseling and rehabilitation sessions, and job interviews. To date, OTA has completed over 7,800 projects for veterans through this program.

Yeoman Third Class Derrick Clark said OTA turned his life around when he returned home from active duty.

“OTA’s Welcome Home Program helped me get back on my feet as I adjusted to civilian life. When I found a place to live, OTA provided me with kitchen supplies, toiletries and even paintings. A few years later we lost our home to a fire and OTA stepped in again. They quickly provided bunkbeds, bedding, clothing and toys for my kids. OTA is a real lifesaver for many veterans,” said Clark, who volunteers for The Mission Continues, a nonprofit that connects veterans with under-resourced communities.

As OTA looks to the future, it hopes to expand its services to reach out to even more troops, veterans and their families.

“One of our challenges is securing enough financial support so we can continue our mission of serving our troops,” said Orluk. “Inflation has meant that we are paying more to procure items. Consequently, individuals don’t have as much disposable cash to make large contributions. To counteract that, we have been seeking more long-term financial commitments from companies and corporate sponsors. We are also stretching our purchasing dollar by looking for volume pricing and special discounts since what we provide is all new items and merchandise. What’s more, because we are an all-volunteer organization, every single fundraising dollar we receive is used to help our troops and veterans, instead of paying for administration salaries.”
Orluk added that OTA is preparing to move its headquarters to a new facility in West Mifflin.

“Not only will this new facility give us more room for our administrative and operational needs, but it will also provide space for fundraising events, and a venue to offer classes, job fairs and social gatherings for our veterans to reduce isolation and promote comradery. We are excited about this upcoming move, as it will meet our growing needs for many years to come,” she said.

Stories of Service

We are honored to share the “Stories of Service” series of videos featuring some of the brave veterans we’ve helped!

Listen as some of our amazing Veterans share their story on how Operation Troop Appreciation, with the help of our amazing volunteers and donors, have helped change their lives.

OTA On The Move!

We are excited to announce that OTA is moving to our new Operations & Events Center, located at 2017 Pennsylvania Avenue, West Mifflin PA 15122, formerly occupied by Oasis Ministries. We will be closed the month of December to complete packing and moving activities and will open in our new building in 2023! We have a lot of work to do so repairs and renovations can be completed and will busy for the next few months while we operate during construction. But come back often for updates on renovations and announcement of our Grand Opening Celebration!

Pittsburgh Steeler Support PA National Guard!

The Steelers are not only winning on the field, they’re doing an awesome job off the field too! We have some great Steeler swag we are sending to our PA National Guard deployed overseas! Thank you Pittsburgh Steelers for your commitment to our courageous!

Steelers rep, John Wodarek delivering Steelers swag to OTA Operations Manager Sherry Einhaus
OTA Volunteer Eva Parker packing thank you cards, Steeler Swag and other goodies for our troops!
OTA Operations Manager Sherry Einhaus packing goodies for the troops
Boxes packed and ready for the post office!

David leads the build-out of First Commonwealth’s advisory talent, with a particular emphasis on retirement and estate planning, and customized investment solutions. He is committed to providing a culture of customization and flexibility, ensuring superior service to the client.  

Before joining First Commonwealth, he served as Senior Vice President and Managing Director at FNB Wealth Management, responsible for the organization’s wealth management sales strategy, revenue retention efforts, investment agency accounts, employee benefit plans, foundations, endowments and trustee relationships. He also spent time at Federated Investors and PNC Wealth Management earlier in his career.  

David is a Certified Public Accountant, earning his Bachelor’s degree in Accounting from John Carroll University in Ohio and received his MBA from Robert Morris College in Pittsburgh.

Lesley brings over 25 years of experience in financial services, focusing on Insurance & Annuity marketing, product and distribution. Before Joining GBU, Lesley served as the CMO and Head of Distribution for Knighthead Annuity & Life Assurance Company, as founding leader driving the company’s growth to over $2 Billion in assets under management. Lesley spent 20 years with Prudential Financial as SVP, Relationship Management for Prudential’s annuity business, responsible for the management, business development, sales, and marketing for the firm’s 300 institutional clients. She grew sales from under $10 billion a year to over $21 Billion, becoming the largest distributor of annuities in the industry.

As a senior executive, Lesley’s passion is around growing, developing, and evolving businesses, while leveraging the strengths that already exist in the business. She works to understand the culture, the business framework, and the people, shaping her determination to build high-performance teams and successful organizations. Lesley holds B.A. In Economics & Political Science from Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.