HOUSTON—Electric cooperative volunteers worked together to set a new record for Operation: Veteran Smiles, a nonprofit organization founded by former Youth Tour delegate Amelia Day.

Day, 20, has been working to make life a little easier for hospitalized military veterans since she was in middle school. She worked with CONNECT conference volunteers on May 7 to support veterans at Michael E DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

"We packed over 600 care packages for veterans in two hours, and that's the most volunteers have ever done in a single sitting," said Day, who founded Operation: Veteran Smiles when she was 16, after talking about the effort with other students attending NRECA's Youth Tour.

"I started collecting items for hospitalized veterans in 2012 as a small 4-H service project, and when I went to Washington and talked about it on Youth Tour, kids thought it was a really cool project and that I should do more with it," said Day.

Day used the project to apply for a community service scholarship for college, which led to her founding a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit corporation. Since then, Operation: Veteran Smiles has distributed more than 25,000 personal care kits to military veterans through VA medical centers across the country.

When NRECA and Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives were looking for a community service project for CONNECT—the annual conference for co-op communicators, marketers and member services professionals—they contacted Day, who now studies culinary arts at Helm's College in Macon, Georgia.

Touchstone Energy partnered with Day in 2018 to support veterans at NRECA's Region 2 & 3 Meeting in Atlanta. All agreed that Operation: Veteran Smiles would be a great fit for CONNECT, which has a history of collecting donations for the Fisher House Foundation, an organization with the mission to help military families.

Arrangements were made to collect donations of toiletries, playing cards and other personal hygiene items at the conference, and CONNECT attendees dropped in to help assemble kits and write notes of appreciation and support for hospitalized veterans.

"My son was in the Navy, my husband was in the Air Force, my dad was in the Army, and I love veterans," said Cindy Denney, director of marketing at Jay County Rural Electric Membership Corp. in Portland, Indiana. "You have to give back to these people who spent at least part of their lives protecting our country."

"Cards, toothbrushes and other small things may not seem like much, but it's kind of nice to be thought of and remembered for your service," said Victoria Broughton, communications coordinator at Fairfield Electric Cooperative in Blythewood, South Carolina.

The volunteers exceeded their goal of stuffing 500 bags in under 90 minutes. The items were quickly boxed up and delivered to the DeBakey Veterans Administration Medical Center by Day and a group of volunteers.

"Our partnerships with community groups have been an important part of the well-being of our patients," said Barbra Bell, chief of volunteer services at DeBakey VA. "Many patients do not have family in the Houston and surrounding area, so this is where we really depend on the community to take time out of their busy schedules to help."

Bell said the donated kits will be big morale boosters for the vets.

"It helps brighten their day and makes a positive impact on their stay at the hospital," said Bell. "Oftentimes the patients are brought to tears because the gift or visit means so much to them."

During CONNECT's opening general session, Tracey Steiner, NRECA senior vice president of education and training, reminded the more than 600 attendees that co-op support of Operation: Veteran Smiles is ongoing. She encouraged people to consider donating to the group during and even after the conference.

For more information, contact Operation: Veteran Smiles 650 Irby Road, Fort Valley, Georgia, 31030 or email Amelia Day.