On this day of patriotism, I’d like to reflect on someone making great strides in the military community, but would never allow you to pat her on the back. I had the pleasure of spending time on the phone with Barbara Mills, the founder of Operation Welcome Home which welcomes returning soldiers home with a giant basket of gifts, a local party to express gratitude, and local media attention. In Citrus County, Florida, Mills is lovingly known as the “red basket lady,” collecting gifts for anyone returning home to her county, no matter the branch of military.
During our chat, it struck me deeply that she rarely uses the word “I,” rather focuses on everyone around her, making sure that no soldier comes home without the recognition they deserve. She speaks enthusiastically about her mission and I found myself choked up repeatedly throughout our conversation, as she tapped the exact spot in my soul reserved for patriotism and pride.
But it was clear that even this interview was uncomfortable, as she wanted so deeply for the focus to remain on Operation Welcome Home, which she makes no money from, in fact, she puts her own money into, as do the handful of volunteers that helps this powerhouse to organize and execute the mission.
The organization started out very modestly, with Mills sending care packages to her own son who was in the Navy and stationed in Iraq. The first Christmas he was stationed there, she organized a care package drive not just for the sons and daughters of Citrus County, but their entire units which ranged from 15 to 100 people each.
But that wasn’t enough for Mills.
From care packages to a welcome home party
She knew that these children would be returning home to the challenge of adjusting to civilian life, and that no one would really know what they did. She reflected on the dismal return of Vietnam vets and vowed that she would do everything in her power to insure that their community would praise each and every soldier upon return, so none of them felt as disconnected or disrespected as the Vietnam veterans did decades ago.
Mills learned that another military mom’s son was returning before her own in 2007, so she put together a red wicker basket filled with goodies. They organized a welcome home party, involved the veteran community, arranged for the local paper to cover the event, and created a proper welcome home for the soldier.
But that wasn’t enough for Mills.
How do I tell another mom no?
She remained concerned that her son was soon to come home, “and no one knew his story,” just like many other veterans. Another mother called her with a son coming home the following week, and Mills stopped. She says she hadn’t thought past that first event. Her gears began turning. “How do I tell a mom that we don’t have money?” And so Operation Welcome Home was born.
Mills hopped on the phone to call every veteran organization that would take her call, pulled together another gift basket, arranged a welcome home party with local media present, and birthed the template for so many events to come.
Soldiers are presented with so much more than gifts, they are welcomed back home by the civilian and veteran community and recognized publicly by WWII and Vietnam veterans. Mills says the soldiers are moved and stunned by this move, asking, “you are thanking me?”
It has since has expanded exponentially
Fast forward to today and Operation Welcome Home is the second largest community of veterans – Mills organizes trips to Washington D.C. for Honor Flight veterans, helped raise money and talent for a local veteran’s home to be remodeled, is organizing surprise returns (you’ve all seen the videos and cried about them), and much more.
It’s not just red wicker baskets anymore.
Mills credits the local paper for covering every single return of a soldier to Citrus County, her volunteers for keeping the wheels turning, the endless retailers and restaurants who have donated gift cards and goods, and the veteran community for continually opening their doors to Operation Welcome Home.
Balancing this much charity with work
I asked Mills how it is humanly possible to balance her charity work with her real estate career, and she chuckled and simply said, “I run all day and work all night!” explaining that “it flows with my job” since she’s always out and about.
“Everybody has a niche. I found mine,” she explains. “It’s a true honor, a true, true honor to have these folks feel the way they do because of Operation Welcome Home. What more could I ask for?”
Mills is up for the 2015 Good Neighbor Award
REALTOR® Magazine’s Good Neighbor Awards honor REALTORS® who give back in that way, choosing 10 finalists and five winners. The winners will be announced on September 30th and will receive $10,000 grants for their charities. Five honorable mentions will receive $2,500 grants. One of the 10 will win $1,000 for getting the most web votes.
Mills is one of the finalists and you can vote for her or any of the other distinguished finalists raising money for their charities at realtor.com/goodneighbor with one click (none of that registration nonsense).