By JULIA DE SIMONE, GSN Contributor
It was Jamie Sistek’s first encounter with the U.S. veteran.
As the Chandler woman sat in her booth in the sparse parking lot, he approached her almost cautiously and asked, “What’s this all about?”
Sistek explained her nonprofit organization’s mission, but he remained guarded.
Sistek didn’t falter. Instead, she leaned in and smiled, explaining that the Chandler-based Boots in the House was formed in 2014 after her son enlisted in the U.S. Marines.
It consists of a devoted crew of volunteers including the nonprofit’s board of directors – her husband Greg, Jennifer Tremose of Phoenix and Christine Omitt of Mesa – all parents to children who are currently serving in the military or have in the past.
It is not uncommon for Sistek and volunteers to spend many hours answering questions from service members and their families seeking resources.
Some of the requests echo familiar feelings of post-traumatic stress disorder. Others are from veterans returning home to find themselves homeless. One even was absent without leave until Sistek helped urge him to return.
The nonprofit founder says they work with other organizations as well to help “in the hardest times.”
While Sistek continued to explain the faith-based organization’s dedication to supporting the emotional, health and well-being of all U.S. military service members and their families, the veteran listened and became less standoffish.
He asked more questions until his eyes fell upon a box seated on the table nearby.
“He was holding a lot in and then asked about the ‘Café Box,’” she said.
His eyes fixated on the box that contained coffee, tea, hot cocoa, cream, sugar and various treats.
Sistek explained that the “Café Box” is an example of the approximately 2,000 care packages that Boots in the House has sent thus far to military service members.
The first package was sent in 2015 after launching Boots In The House, an all-volunteer organization that puts all its donations back into making good on its mission.
“We do many things for our service members – past, present and future – but the biggest thing is sending care packages to our deployed troops in hostile and remote locations,” Sistek said. “We’re trying to send light into some dark places.”
The veteran listened more intently, reservations fading.
“How much does it cost to send that specific box?” he asked.
Sistek gave him the figure, and he walked away.
Minutes later the veteran returned, money in hand with one simple request – the package be sent to a deployed Marine. Sistek handed him a card to sign and accompany his gift.
“Here he is – probably donating money he didn’t have just to support his ‘brothers and sisters,’” Sistek said, holding back the tears.
The conversation continued. Sistek’s daughter offered the stranger a chair, they invited him to lunch – compliments of the organization hosting the event.
“He just sat and talked about a lot of things for two to three hours. We said a prayer. He told us he had just moved here from another state. His wife had left him, he had no friends, and this was the best day he had since moving to Arizona,” Sistek said.
Eventually, she added, “you could completely see that wall break down. It was a transformation.”
“Whatever event we go to, we believe we are to be there – not just to raise funds but also just to have a veteran talk to us and tell us their own story. A lot of them tell us stuff, they haven’t even told their families.”
Holly Granillo of Gilbert knows firsthand the impact of receiving a box of sunshine. Chief Petty Officer Granillo is a reservist with the U.S. Navy.
She first connected with Sistek on social media requesting mainly hygiene products for herself and fellow service members deployed. She is currently serving overseas.
Granillo admitted that she was pleasantly surprised when
the Boots in the House package arrived. She said it was the little items such as condiment packages and flavored-enhancer packets “because water gets boring to drink,” that made all the difference.
“Normally boxes you receive, you can’t really use, “ she said. “Her boxes were substantially usable because everything that was sent we could use – such as deodorant and lotions. You could tell that whomever packed it put a lot of love in it. It wasn’t just thrown together. It was methodically prepared.”
Granillo said there’s even a box for the furriest service members – the “K-9 Box for Heroes” equipped with such items as dog treats and toys.
“We’re fighting over those care packages,” she chuckled.
And topping off each box are cards, letters and drawings from students and volunteers.
“They are the ‘cherries on the sundae,’” Sistek said. “When everything is gone (from the boxes), that’s what they save. They put them up on the wall or carry them with them.”
“We had received multiple requests from different sources for troops that needed support in Djibouti; the shelves were almost empty at the USO,” Sistek added. “Boots in the House sent two shipments of care packages, the first containing 44 care packages then followed up with an additional 12. This went to a location that had all five branches represented, including K9 military working dogs; which we sent K9 boxes to.”
Granillo said she and fellow service members feel “blessed” to receive this “personal communication.”
“It makes the day easier when you get a care package in the mail,” she said. “We have not always been received well in hostile environments so when we receive a care package, it’s nice to know America has our back.”
The nonprofit is always in need of donations and volunteers, especially schools and organizations interested in helping promote “Boots in the House” service projects.