EVERETT — When family is far away, it’s a service member’s military family that often steps in to help when times are tough or lonely.
Operation Homefront is a national nonprofit, based in Texas, that was founded in 2002 to help military families. More than 90 percent of the nonprofit’s expenses are spent on its programs, including financial assistance, transitional and permanent housing, and support services aimed at preventing short-term needs from turning into long-term struggles.
It recently opened a local office in Everett, where two Snohomish County women now lead the nonprofit’s efforts for the western United States.
“It’s really the community coming together to show our military members and families how much we support them,” said Olivia Burley, the new senior director for Operation Homefront’s Pacific Northwest operations. She oversees programs in Washington and seven other states.
Like many of those who support Operation Homefront, Burley, of Mill Creek, has a military connection. Her husband is active duty in the Navy, and both her parents served with the Air Force. She grew up in Washington, graduating from Clover Park High School in Lakewood and from the University of Washington.
Working under her is Sara Rizzo, of Everett, who recently moved from San Diego with her active-duty husband, who was reassigned to recruiting duty in Everett for the Marine Corps. Rizzo, originally from Florida, is now Operation Homefront’s area manager for programs in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska.
“It makes things a little bit easier when I can talk to a family or a spouse and say, ‘Oh yeah, I know where you’ve been. I understand what you’re going through, my husband is in the service.’ It helps with that connection,” Rizzo said.
Operation Homefront is primarily known by the public for its donation campaigns for military kids at Dollar Tree stores.
A holiday toy drive continues at Dollar Tree check-out registers through Thursday. A Back to School Brigade drive earlier in the year gathers school supplies and backpacks.
Volunteers such as Karen Morea, of Lake Stevens, fan out to the stores to pick up the piles of donations. This time of year, the boxes overflow with stuffed animals, dress-up clothes, balls, lip gloss and much more.
Morea has volunteered to pick up Operation Homefront donations at stores for several years now as part of her work with the American Legion Auxiliary in Lake Stevens, which supports local military families.
On Dec. 17, many of the toys that local shoppers have donated will be given away to local kids at the auxiliary’s annual holiday party for military families. Toys for Tots also will be donating gifts, she said.
Morea’s husband served in the Army for 12 years. Their two sons now serve; one is stationed in Germany and will miss the family Christmas gathering.
She remembers the heartache of being thousands of miles from family and unable to afford to go home for Christmas with three young kids.
Military families often face the same struggles as non-military families.
“But I think sometimes it’s amplified,” Morea said. “If you run out of food or diapers toward the end of the month — you had an emergency car payment or something — and you need a little assistance, a lot of people have family right around.”
That’s not typically the case for military families.
“Up in this area, there is a pretty strong presence for assistance to military families,” Morea said, adding Operation Homefront is a key piece of that larger picture.
Besides its toy and school supply drives, Operation Homefront also provides meal kits for the holidays, and holds morale-building events as well as a “baby shower” each spring. Those efforts are in addition to its emergency financial assistance programs, such as helping with an unexpected medical bill.
The work is year-round, but holds special meaning around the holidays.
“A lot of our ships are deployed that are based in Snohomish County. We have a lot of spouses and families at home missing their family member,” Burley said. “When we can show their military service means so much to us, that’s really what it’s all about.”
Melissa Slager: firstname.lastname@example.org; 425-339-3432.
Holiday toy drive: Donate toys through Dollar Tree through Thursday. To find a store, go to www.dollartree.com.
Volunteer: Go to operationhomefront.org and click the “Get Involved” tab.
Military family holiday party
The American Legion Auxiliary in Lake Stevens invites military families to its annual holiday party, 1-3 p.m. Dec. 17. The event includes kids games and crafts, door prizes, toys, a visit from Santa, cookie decorating, music, food and more. To learn more, email Karen Morea at karenmorea2013 @gmail.com.