As you know, radio is my first love (See 6/50 "Radio” July 12, 2015) and I’ve been listening to The Bert Show longer than I’ve ever listened to any other morning radio show consistently. When it first aired in 2001 with Bert Weiss, Jeff Dauler and Lindsay Brien, I was listening and haven't stopped since. As fun and entertaining as the morning show is, they also tackle serious issues and current events, and put their energies toward positive community work that makes a difference for others. All these things resonate with me.
Several years ago, the show began an initiative called The Bert Show's Big Thank You. It's a massive letter writing campaign that begins each year in September. The goal is to get a unique, hand-written thank you letter to every single American military man and woman serving outside the United States in time for Thanksgiving.
Reaching the goal means collecting anywhere from 70,000 to 110,000 or more letters. These letters come in from all over the country, from all walks of life and every age group you can imagine. I've enjoyed the spirit of the Big Thank You, and I loved listening to the updates as the letters rolled in and The Bert Show reported the progress. On a whim three years ago, I decided to volunteer on the project.
On a dark early November morning in 2013, I headed to the radio station to volunteer. It was Big Thank You Day One. When I arrived, I signed in and was immediately put to work. What I didn’t realize then is how much has to happen between the time you promote a letter-writing campaign and the time the letters actually get mailed to the soldiers, sailors and airmen.
As the submission deadline draws near, letters begin arriving in postal bins, slowly at first and then thousands every day. Sorting, reading, organizing, counting and bundling them all is a pretty massive undertaking that requires organization, a specific process and the ability to teach the process to others. Hmmm that sounds familiar. Who knew this volunteer project would be such a perfect fit for my skill set? Go figure.
That first morning I volunteered, the first new friend I made was fellow volunteer Andrea. We connected right away, and spent the morning opening and reading letters with other volunteers. We giggled at the hilarious and candid things middle schoolers write, fawned over the adorable drawings of the little ones and shared the heartfelt words of gratitude from veterans and grateful citizens all over the country.
My sunrise shift turned into lunch, which turned into dinner. I can’t tell you how many thank you letters I read in those fourteen hours, but at the end of the evening, when I signed myself out, my heart was full. I knew I’d be coming back the next morning. I ended up coming back nearly every day for two weeks. As a strong supporter of our United States military, and having multiple family members who served, I was officially in love with this project from the get-go.
Tommy Owen is The Bert Show’s Show Director and he also runs the Big Thank You project. When I joined the effort in 2013, Tommy was coordinating everything by himself. Between helping to run the morning show and keeping Big Thank You on track, he was putting in exhausting 16-hour days.
After a few days of volunteering and seeing Tommy there constantly, I also noticed some of the same people kept showing up every day. Sharp, wonderful, motivated women who, like me, loved the project. We began getting to know each other and we recognized that Tommy had way too much on his plate. As groups of women are wont to do, we formed a committee.
There were seven of us. We held a secret meeting, we came up with a secret handshake and we approached Tommy about becoming an official committee for the rest of the 2013 and going forward.
Understandably, Tommy was reluctant to give up control of this massive project and he resisted a bit at first. But when he realized how well this new committee got along, worked together, and kept things running smoothly, he came around.
Truth be told, I think the poor man was willing to try anything if it meant he'd get a few hours sleep. From then on, Big Thank You 2013 was the year of the ad hoc committee, and it went pretty well despite the fact that we were figuring out processes on the fly. After all was said and done, the letters were mailed and another Big Thank You was in the history books.
The new committee held a post-mortem meeting to evaluate our success and look for ways to improve the following year. Yes we were a brand new committee but we knew that with some organization and advance preparation, we could make Big Thank You 2014 the best one yet. And that’s exactly what we did.
We held meetings several months in advance to document our processes, create templates, identify supply needs, vendors and hash out a timeline. We assigned roles and responsibilities and we worked together, so that when November came we'd be ready! Somewhere along the way, Andrea (my first Big Thank You friend and one of our original committee members) got pregnant in the off-season, so our committee members changed a bit for 2014, but we were still prepared to rock it!
Having an actual Big Thank You committee allowed Tommy to be the leader instead of doing everything himself. As our leader, he was able to stay focused on the big picture, come up with bigger ideas and leave much of the execution to us. As a result, Big Thank You 2014 was epic!
Tommy added new and exciting elements for 2014! Keurig donated coffee pods and brewing machines to the cause. We had an honest-to-goodness break room with snacks and drinks for the volunteers. We had Big Thank You Fatheads made to decorate the walls of our volunteer headquarters and life-size stills of Bert, Jeff and Kristin greeted volunteers as they arrived. We purchased a flag from every branch of the service and affixed them to the walls of our volunteer headquarters. We set up a Big Thank You Wall of Fame where we displayed the very best letters for others to enjoy before they got packed and shipped at the end of the project.
Each Big Thank You committee member signed up to run one of four volunteer shifts every day. We traded off opening at 6:00 a.m. and closing at 10 p.m. and we trained the hundreds of wonderful volunteers who showed up, all the while pushing out heartfelt and hilarious updates on social media. Seriously, who can forget #FreedomPoo?
Thousands upon thousands of letters began to arrive at Big Thank You headquarters and we, along with hundreds of volunteers showed up to read them. You might think I’m nuts to wake up at 5:00 am to be at a volunteer job by sunrise nearly every day for two weeks. Maybe so, but in the quiet darkness of the morning, when I’m the only person there to see the sun coming up, I’ll brew a cup of coffee, sit down with a stack of letters and begin to read.
The letters are the reason I commit my time and energy to the Big Thank You. They come in from all over the country, and a few even come from other countries. They’re written by young children, teens, and adults. The purpose of the letters is to say THANK YOU to a military person currently serving, but many who write also share stories about their own lives too. I imagine it's an attempt to relate and connect with a person far away who may be just like themselves, or nothing at all.
In the letters, people write about their grandparents and uncles who served in the military and perhaps even fought in a war. They write about their friends and relatives who perished on combat missions and how much they miss them. They often write about their own military service, what they experienced and how it changed them. One letter that particularly touched me came from a man named Ron, whom I’m now friends with here on Facebook. After reading his letter and his story, I couldn’t help but look him up.
Sometimes those who write the letters share their thoughts on life, God and country along with their personal joys and sorrows. Many draw beautiful pictures of soldiers, eagles or American flags to include with their letters. For many, I believe writing a note of thanks feels woefully inadequate, yet important for both the writer and the reader.
By the end of Big Thank You 2014, those tens of thousands of letters got opened, sorted, read, counted, bundled and shipped to every non-domestic United States military base on the globe, all without a hitch. For that, I give the credit to the Lord because when you have seven women working together for two weeks and there isn’t a single argument, it's surely the work of the divine.
Another result of the new and improved Big Thank You 2014? Tommy got to see his lovely wife Renee and he got to sleep at night like a normal human being. Big Thank You 2014 was, in a word, AWESOME.
It’s gratifying to work with a team toward a common goal and actually achieve it, especially when it benefits such a worthy group as our United States military. It’s heart-warming to see so many people from around the country writing hand-written letters of gratitude to a service man or woman. It’s inspiring to see hundreds of members of The Bert Show listening community volunteer their time and energy for such a great cause.
Historically I’ve not been a joiner. Outside of my professional association, I rarely volunteer, but I am honored to be a part of The Bert Show’s Big Thank You team. The effort is near and dear to my heart and I cherish not only the friends I’ve made through it, but the experience of contributing to those who give so much this country every day.