The Advance-Titan

Student’s nonprofit inspires veteran appreciation

Operation Not Alone founder Susan Fochs writes thank you notes on Friday. Fochs started ONA three years ago. Jessica Zemlicka | The Advance-Titan

Operation Not Alone founder Susan Fochs writes thank you notes on Friday. Fochs started ONA three years ago.

Volunteer Kayla Emhoff makes a tie-blanket to be sent in an active-duty soldier’s care package. Her uncle is in the army.Jessica Zemlicka | The Advance-Titan

Volunteer Kayla Emhoff makes a tie-blanket to be sent in an active-duty soldier’s care package. Her uncle is in the army.

Operation Not Alone wants to ensure veterans and those who serve are never alone and will not be forgotten, according to UWO student and ONA founder, Susan Fochs.

Susan runs her growing non-profit out of her apartment in Oshkosh while still balancing the life of a college student. She started ONA three years ago after growing up surrounded by a military life and culture.

“My father is a 100 percent permanently disabled Marine veteran so honoring veterans has always been a huge part of my family life,” Susan said.

Susan’s mother, Barbara Brattleaf Fochs, said Susan grew up watching her father battle beyond his service, which made her more passionate about ONA and helping veterans.

“Watching her dad suffer her whole life she really wanted other veterans [to] know that they are loved and not forgotten,” Barbara said.

Susan started competing in the Miss America Organization at age 17 and decided her platform should be founded on the efforts of helping those in the military every day.

“There was no question that I wanted to spend every day helping active duty soldiers, veterans and their families,” Susan said.

Susan had completed the research she needed by the end of her first college semester to start a non-profit.

“When I came to UWO, a sorority sister of mine felt the same passion for supporting troops and inspired the idea of founding a non-profit organization,” Susan said.

At first, Susan thought the idea of sending what she now calls care and cheer packages would be a “nice and cute thing to do.” One of her first recipients of a care package reminded her that saying thank you means more than she thought.

“He told me a heartfelt confession of being close to suicide on his tour in Afghanistan, but that receiving our care package reminded him that people back home cared about him and reminded him of his big picture in joining the military to serve his country – and he no longer wanted to follow through on his suicidal thoughts,” Susan said. “That letter was the truest turning point when I knew that ONA could be something big and something far larger than I could ever think of.”

Due to personal experiences Susan knows the invisible wounds that come back home with soldiers, including PTSD and other mental illnesses.

“On average, 22 veterans commit suicide per day because of PTSD from their deployment and service,” Susan said. “Our goal, which is always growing and developing, is that these packages will be a piece in our mission that no veteran feels forgotten or alone in their fight.”

Susan hopes her non-profit, focusing on saying thank you, will bring awareness to illnesses veterans suffer from and provide a place for veterans and their families to go during tough times.

“Hopefully, this piece of appreciation and connection will allow them to reach out to others fighting the same fight, create a stronger network, open up a dialogue of PTSD and illnesses and get the right resources to work on decreasing military-related suicide rates,” Susan said.

The pieces of appreciation Susan and volunteers make usually involve care or cheer packages. For some special events, ONA will make gift bags.

ONA’s care packages are sent to active-duty, deployed soldiers around the world and contain useful and meaningful items for the soldiers.

“Last week I sent three [packages] out to Belgium, Cuba and South Korea,” Susan said. “They each contain fleece tie-blankets specific to their branch of the military and we usually try and embroider their name in the corner. Then they get non-perishable food items, hygiene products, recreational items and a lot of letters of thanks.”

ONA has sent out 75 to 100 care packages to soldiers overseas since the non-profit started three years ago. Susan said the work put into the care packages makes it harder to send out more.

“Care packages are a lot more difficult, one because they are so involved and they’re very expensive,” Susan said. “They’re about, if I put it all together with shipping and everything, it’s about $200 to $250 per package that we spend.”

ONA has sent out 425 cheer packages since its beginning three years ago and are substantially different from care packages. Cheer packages are sent out to veterans throughout the country.

“A cheer package has the three runs of coffee,” Susan said. “So they get a full run of coffee, a letter from us and from the organization. A lot of these receive bracelets as well, just kind of like an extra token, but I would love to see that continue to grow in future years as we get more donations of larger sizes.”

Currently, Door County Coffee is ONA’s corporate sponsor. This year alone, they donated 2,000 runs of coffee, all of which are exclusive to ONA.

“They let us rename three of their brands,” Susan said. “It’s a light, medium and dark roasts and we renamed them to the Operation Not Alone Blend, the Hero’s Blend and the Veteran’s Blend.”

Susan said Door County Coffee receives orders of those three blends after ONA has sent them out to veterans.

“It’s kind of really fun to have that exclusive product that people have to come and get it through us,” Susan said.

Besides having a single sponsor, ONA receives donations through many fundraisers throughout Oshkosh and Wisconsin.

“We have the [Oshkosh] farmer’s market, we have the [Green Bay] Packer game fundraisers, which we work at the concession stands and we get 10 percent of the food and alcohol sales, and at Lambeau Field when a Miller Lite is $8, it racks up pretty well,” Susan said.

ONA also hosts dining to donate events at local restaurants in Oshkosh and has even partnered with Wild Tomato in Door County for a whole month of fundraising.

“Every month [Wild Tomato does] a donation creation pizza and $1 of every pizza of that type that’s sold goes to a certain charity of the month,” Susan said.

Susan also gave Wild Tomato soldier cards for servers to hand out to those who ordered the pizza.

“We have soldier cards that are business cards that have all of our information on one side and on the back of it, you can fill it out,” Susan said. “You fill out the back of the card with your name and your branch, address, if you have any allergies, and hand it back or send it in.”

Soldier cards spread the word of ONA along with word of mouth and social media. Through these avenues, Susan has a database of veterans and active-duty soldiers she wants to reach with her packages.

To check off names on the database, Susan has to organize events where volunteers can come help and ensure packages are sent out on time, just like during ONA’s cheer package assembly on Nov. 4 in Sage Hall.

Susan’s non-profit and student statuses make working on campus easy for her and the volunteers.

“We can have the space for free,” Susan said. “We can get students fairly easily. We can promote it to students and groups who need volunteer hours.”

UWO freshman Kayla Emhoff volunteered her time to ONA by making tie-blankets for the care packages.

“I’m in the Circle K club and they gave [cheer package assembly] as one of the options I could come and volunteer for,” Emhoff said.

Emhoff not only attended to volunteer, but to honor a family member and help in supporting veterans.

“My uncle is in the Army and he said that receiving care packages and letters and stuff is one of the best things,” Emhoff said.

ONA will have reached all veterans and military members in its database, like Emhoff’s uncle, by Veteran’s Day this year.

“There’s no one that we haven’t reached,” Susan said. “For some people this is their third year getting a package from us and for some of them it’s their first year depending on when we get an address. Once this whole mail out goes out, there will be no one we haven’t reached.”

Susan faces issues just like any small business or non-profit looking to get their name out there. Susan, her volunteers and ONA carry on by remembering why they put in all the work.

“As for challenges, we face most of the same ones as any small business; dedicating the time, having business mentors, funding the organization, strategic planning and goal setting,” Susan said. “But we are so lucky to be fueled by our mission, which I believe is always stronger than the desire for just a profit. Whenever we go through major setbacks, issues with funding, or get super stressed out, we just remember the mission. The feedback we get from the military members that we serve reminds us why we do what we do.”

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Student’s nonprofit inspires veteran appreciation