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Trish Shallenberger: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward”

The most exciting thing we do, over and above, bringing the smiles to deployed soldiers, sailors and marines who may have never received any mail from home — is that we involve the whole community in creation of this gift. I often speak at schools, veterans’ organizations, youth group meetings, and one-on-one with military families. There is […]

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The most exciting thing we do, over and above, bringing the smiles to deployed soldiers, sailors and marines who may have never received any mail from home — is that we involve the whole community in creation of this gift. I often speak at schools, veterans’ organizations, youth group meetings, and one-on-one with military families. There is a place to contribute everywhere along our supply chain, and there is something for everyone to do, no matter how young, how old, or how-abled. And everyone gets to feel that amazing sense of contribution. I also get to educate kids on the value of keeping their promises and commitments.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Trish Shallenberger.

The founder of A Soldier’s Hands, Trish has integrated youth education, volunteer support, fundraising, and leadership into an organization that cares for our deployed military in a uniquely touching way

For 13 years, all sprouting out of one conversation with a sunburned soldier on an overbooked flight from Dallas to Philadelphia, she has brought tears of joy and a new sense of belonging to over 10 thousand deployed military personnel around the planet.

Through education about commitment, follow-through, and giving back, Trish has ensured that every member of the deployed units she touches receives a personal, handwritten note, along with skin care, and goodies, all packaged with love from the home front.

The recognitions and gratitude pour in from all ranks and branches of the armed services. In addition, the 131st Cavalry/Team Vandal recognized her efforts with their Minuteman Statue award; she has been a guest speaker for Prospera Financial Services, Church & Dwight, as well numerous local and veterans clubs; and most importantly with many school assemblies and youth organizations.

Trish’s efforts have been highlighted in local papers, on NBC10 and 6ABC in Philadelphia, and multiple magazine publications. In addition, her work and charity will be featured in the Old Dominion University Alumni magazine this Fall.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Well I would say that it was brought to me. It was brought to me on a flight 13 years ago. I happened to be sitting next to the only empty seat on a plane. And on the other side of that empty seat was a sunburned soldier on his way to Iraq. Only because that middle seat was empty did we get the chance to talk. I recognized that his hands were in really bad shape and offered to help him with some hand lotion that I had.

When he realized how much that helped — and told me that the only thing he really feared about being deployed was sunburn — I offered to send him more lotion when he was deployed.

His amazing response was to decline because he didn’t feel it was fair for his hands to be cared for when the rest of his unit would be suffering from sunburn. So, I was compelled to ask: “Well, how many people are in your unit? I’ll just send enough for everyone.”

I gulped heavily when he said there were 177 soldiers going with him! I gulped — but then I said, “Okay, then. We will get sunscreen to the whole unit — I promise.”

That sentence sealed my fate. On that day, I had no idea HOW I would do it; I just knew I WOULD do it. I had given my word. And I’ve always believed, and taught my four children, that when we give our word, we keep it.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I always refer to this entire journey as a series of dominos falling and leading to the next step. Often when I don’t know what the next step will be, but it always shows up. A good example is when my Treasurer was working with an ex-Army officer who put us in touch with a large deployed battalion. When I talked with the officers of that unit, I learned that 800 soldiers were about to be deployed. 
 
 At that point, we had never delivered that many packages before, and I also knew that we could not send to just a partial unit. We had learned previously that so many soldiers don’t get any mail call at all while they’re deployed and were brought to tears when they received our packages.
 So I told those officers, I had to think on it a bit. 
 
 Well, when I told the story to a friend, she said, “This will happen. You have at least 100 people in your immediate circle, and each of them can easily find 8 people each to contribute the money to cover one package.” Let’s do this!
 
 And sure enough — we did. This was the pivot point at which we became a 501(c)3.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
 
 The funniest thing that happened was when we were packaging for the very first troop, and we used raffia for our first ribbons, and my volunteers were complaining because it was tearing their hands up. I had to leave the house for a little bit during that packaging party, and when I came home, I found raffia everywhere: around my milk in the refrigerator, in my underwear drawer, on the shower head, and on the toilet paper roll!

Believe me — that was the last time we used raffia. It was ironic that our mission was to save hands, and we were destroying the hands of our volunteers!

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
 
The most exciting thing we do, over and above, bringing the smiles to deployed soldiers, sailors and marines who may have never received any mail from home — is that we involve the whole community in creation of this gift. I often speak at schools, veterans’ organizations, youth group meetings, and one-on-one with military families. There is a place to contribute everywhere along our supply chain, and there is something for everyone to do, no matter how young, how old, or how-abled. And everyone gets to feel that amazing sense of contribution. I also get to educate kids on the value of keeping their promises and commitments.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
 
The original soldier that I met has remained affected by this story, and the organization’s relationship with him. It helped while he was on deployment because he was able to display all of the thank you letters that we sent with our care packages, and it served as a wall for the soldiers to come and look at when they needed a pick-me-up.

And if it wasn’t for him being more concerned about his unit than his own personal comfort, then these 10 thousand lives would have never been touched.

He also learned that some people do what they say they are going to do; and that clearly had a positive impact on his life after he returned stateside.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Volunteering for letter-writing, packaging, and financial contributions are the biggest way that the community can participate.
  2. Invitations for A Soldier’s Hands to have booths at county, local, state fairs and events gives us the opportunity to spread the word, and to identify deployed troops we can serve.
  3. Access to military leaders who can assist us in identifying and working through the logistics of getting the packages to as many units as possible is key to fulfilling our mission.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
 
 Teaching kids the value of “giving back” in joy from their blessings is my greatest leadership privilege.

My best example of this — and I learned as much from her as she has from me — is (now) 16-year-old Casey Schaeffer of Yardley, Pennsylvania. Over the last 7 years she has donated a total of close to $20,000 to A Soldier’s Hands, while also supporting other deserving organizations.

She does this by raising money throughout the year, but most notably with an annual street fair that she holds across the street from her house, and to which she invites the whole community. She keeps ZERO of the proceeds for herself, except enough to fund the following year’s event! The rest she gives away. I am so proud of my association with her. She is already a leader creating her own student-run not-for-profit organization.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. I wish I’d known how similar this organization would be to a full-time business, and yet, run 100% by volunteers. As a result, I’ve surrounded myself with people who have skill sets that I don’t so that we can collectively cover the bases.
  2. I wish I’d known how important the story of our organization was at the beginning, because the trail of our growth is such a powerful example of the journey from one sentence to a full-grown organization. I would have kept a journal
  3. I wish someone had told me that every apparent brick wall is just an opportunity for different growth. We had one supplier of our products for the first 11 years of our journey, and I had not opened the door for alternate suppliers. When a difficulty in the supply chain caused us to evaluate other options, we ended up tripling the amount of product we could supply for the same price without sacrificing quality.
  4. I wish someone had told me that not everyone will trust your good intentions, no matter how good they actually are. The wider your span of influence, the more opportunity there is for people to make bad assumptions. If I’d known this going in, I wouldn’t have taken the couple of bumps in the road so much to heart, instead understanding them as just part of the journey.
  5. I wish someone would have told me how critical a role social media would play in gaining and maintaining support for this mission. Our skills at this have developed over time, but we would have moved more quickly to establish a strong social media presence in order establish credibility and attract money, volunteers and deployed units.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
 
 I would definitely focus that movement on educating our youth on the joys and responsibility of giving back. If every single person did just one thing that was focused on others, what a world this would be.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life? 
 
 “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
 This has been the story of A Soldier’s Hands. When I look back on this journey and its impact on soldiers, communities, children, and my own family, it is so clear to see the line connecting all the dots. It is my job to move forward with the faith that those dots are still connecting as we speak.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to have a private meal with Andre Agassi so that I could talk with him about how he got through his struggles to bounce back to such a high level of professional athleticism, and then start his own charity to give back to underprivileged children. And he was FUN to watch in tennis!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

A Soldier’s Hands has a Facebook page, and our website is www.asoldiershands.org.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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