By Rick Weinberg, Editor, California Business Journal
Email: Rick@CalBizJournal.com / Mobile: 949-648-3815
AFTER AN ASTOUNDING 7.5 MILLION LETTERS OF APPRECIATION TO AMERICAN TROOPS and an unprecedented wave of media exposure since the inception of “A Million Thanks” in 2004, it was time for Shauna Fleming’s unique and powerful organization to evolve.
So Fleming, a Chapman University alum from the Class of 2011 who has received worldwide attention for her organization, brought in a full-time executive director and added such programs as college scholarships for children of fallen service members, a Grant A Wish program to help increase the quality of life for injured military personnel, a Casino Night, and the first annual golf tournament, which will be held at Camp Pendleton’s Marine Memorial Golf Course in the Fall. More than 250 people are expected to attend, including marines as well as business, civic and community leaders from all over Southern California.
“It was time for our organization to grow and advance in a big way,” Fleming says. “A Million Thanks is not going away and we wanted to create a fun event that we can build on and create a history. We intend to have this tournament every year. This is another great way to grow A Million Thanks to its highest level.”
Fleming’s simple wish back in 2004 – sending one million letters to troops overseas fighting for America’s freedom – has grown to mammoth proportions today. She was a high school freshman at Orange Lutheran when she came up with a community service program called A Million Thanks.
Lying in bed one evening in 2004, the 15-year-old freshman was mulling over ideas for a school community service project. She couldn’t sleep as a wave of ideas were rolling though her head – helping the homeless, collecting trash on the beach.
“While those initiatives are incredibly important, nothing was really tugging hard at my heartstrings,” she recalls. “I wanted to do something really unique and really big.”
Then it hit her: showing appreciation for American military.
It was three years after 9/11 and America’s troops had been deployed to Iraq to fight for our freedom and thwart any possibility of another attack like the World Trade Center massacre.
Fleming had developed a deeply-embedded soft spot in her heart for the service members and their families. So as she lied in bed that evening, listening to her father typing away on his computer, she arose, approached her father and said, “Dad, I got it. I want to create a program where people send letters to troops to show their appreciation for them, to thank them for putting their lives at risk for us. How many letters do you think should be our goal?”
“I don’t know,” he responded. “How about a million?”
That struck a chord with his daughter. She immediately went to her computer to see if ThanksAMillion.com was available. It wasn’t. So she went with the next best thing – A Million Thanks.
“I didn’t know how I was going to do it, how I was going to get a million thank-you letters to our troops, but this is exactly what I wanted to do.”
Little did she know she was at the doorstep of creating a monster initiative that would rock the world from Orange County to Iraq to the oval office in Washington, D.C.
Within six months, Fleming had achieved her goal of one million letters. She became the talk of her school and of Orange County. Media interviews followed in massive waves. First it was local media — the OC Register, KTLA Channel 5, NBC Los Angeles, ABC Los Angeles, KNX, Los Angeles Times, FOX and CBS Los Angeles. Then the Associated Press heard about it and Fleming’s story went national. She became an instant national celebrity, being interviewed from virtually every national media outlet from CBS This Morning, FOX and CNN to ABC’s World New Tonight, Time Magazine and USA Today.
“I was doing about 15 interviews a week for a while,” she says.
Even the White House heard about it.
“One day I got a call from the White House,” Fleming says. “I was floored. They invited me and my family to come to Washington. When the President calls and asks you to do something, you do it,” she adds with a laugh.
She framed the one millionth letter in a decorative frame and presented it to President George W. Bush in an emotional ceremony at the White House with high-ranking military and government officials present. The little girl from Orange with a big idea – and a big heart — was becoming a household name, especially with troops overseas and their families.
The letters were making such a huge impact with service members that Fleming was left speechless. One veteran informed her that the letters were more important than food.
“That’s a huge testament to what these letters can do,” she says. “It shows the value they bring. I really can’t put into words how I felt after hearing that. It was so overwhelming.”
During the early years of A Million Thanks, Fleming would often go to veteran’s homecomings across the state – and even out of state. Little by little, the organization grew.
Today, a new page has turned as A Million Thanks has $200,000 available for college scholarships for military children, nearly $100,000 to grant veterans’ wishes and now the new golf tournament.
Through the Grant A Wish initiative, wounded veterans have received such gifts as a Dodge Ram 1500 from a Pittsburgh dealership and FedEx Ground, a new kayak and fishing equipment from Bass Pro Shops and a top-of-the-line $12,000 Sleep Number bed.
With new Executive Director Matt Parisi overseeing the operation on a full-time basis, wishes will be granted to injured veterans on a regular schedule. Ditto for the scholarship program.
Parisi spends his days shuffling through hundreds of applications from military and their families and determines, with help from Fleming and the organization’s Board of Directors, which service members should be selected for gifts and scholarships. He also brings on partners such as FedEx, NASCAR and Bass Pro Shops to help reach the organization’s goals.
“It’s an honor to be doing this,” says Parisi, who is Fleming’s husband. “Reading though the applications, you become emotionally attached to both the service member and their families. We want to help every one of them.”
To a degree, many people feel that the Iraq war and the War on Terror in general have been in vain. Thousands of American service members have died and with the Islamic State terrorist organization having overrun Iraq, many question whether all the blood, sweat and tears was worth it.
This is her take on that subject matter: “We’ll never know where we’d be today if we didn’t take the opportunity to fight for our freedom. Where would we be had our men and women not been protecting our freedom, whether it’s this war or any other war in our nation’s history? Where would we be if we never tried to hold back our enemies and protect our freedom? Those are the questions we need to ask ourselves. It is a constant battle and our military has done a fantastic job protecting us.
“As I’ve said from the beginning and as I’ll keep on saying and believing, this has nothing to do with politics,” she says. “It’s simply about supporting the troops who are fighting to protect our freedom and to make sure those evil forces do not come into this country and take over our country. That’s the bottom line. Regardless of how anyone feels about the White House and any administration over the years, we still have military overseas that are doing a very difficult job and we need to keep our appreciation up for them.”
For more info, go to AMillionThanks.org. Letters and holiday cards can be mailed to A Million Thanks, 17853 Santiago Blvd. Suite #107-355, Villa Park, CA, 92861.