For Rod Hirsch, helping the troops began in 1969, with an Eagle Scout project that had him sending care packs to friends in Vietnam.
Years later, he’s still helping the military heroes via , the charity he created in 2005—and his commitment had Mary Pat Christie, First Lady of New Jersey, recognizing him as one of New Jersey’s home-grown heroes.
The First Lady presented Hirsch with the honor during a visit to Thursday, greeting the charity’s volunteer staff, family and packing several care packs that will be sent to the troops.
“It is all about the volunteers,” Christie said. “It takes an army, so to speak, but it also takes a leader. It takes somebody with a will and a vision.
“Rod is truly someone who promotes New Jersey pride,” she added. “Too often, we don’t recognize what good is going on in our state.”
Christie’s foundation does just that, as its mission is to recognize, celebrate and promote New Jersey residents and organization that give back to the community. Founded in 2010, New Jersey Heroes typically recognizes one hero per month, she said.
“I’m absolutely honored to be dedicated as a New Jersey Hero,” Hirsch said. “It’s really a tribute to the state of New Jersey that they continue to support us. We all know how hard we work. To get this recognition is a tremendous boost to who we are and what we do.”
“It’s on a roll right now,” Hirsch said. “It’s picked up a lot of momentum, especially with the season. ... Our success is based on how many people are involved and we’re spreading out and getting into a lot of places in the state.”
What they do is a year-round mission, though the volunteers will take a brief break for the holidays before beginning its tasks again in January, Hirsch said.
At the Veterans’ Memorial Park headquarters, boxes of donated soap, shampoo, personal care items, cereal, popcorn, chips, Girl Scout cookies and other items line the hallways and rooms, prepared for volunteers to come and pack one-gallon bags for soldiers. Still more boxes line the walls, addressed to bases overseas.
“I’m struck by the incredibly efficient organization,” Christie said of the packing. “Rod has this down to a science.
“I’m laughing (as I’m packing),” she added. “I caught myself—am I allowed to be laughing? I think the soldiers would want us to be laughing.”
Operation Shoebox gets most of its items through donation drives at schools, supermarkets, churches and corporations throughout the state, as well as outside of the state, Hirsch said. In addition to the food and personal care items, the packs include hand-made cards from children throughout the area.
“Stuff just comes in,” Hirsch said. “A girl from the Holiday Inn came in a few days ago and dropped off a bunch of shampoo and conditioner. We’ll collect on weekends at the supermarkets and schools will do drives.”
In some cases, the organization tries to fulfill requests from soldiers, his wife, Mary Anne, noted. A recent request included bags of pizza-flavored Goldfish crackers for a soldier yearning for a taste of home.
Though Hirsch did not serve in the military, running the charity’s become a full-time job. While he teaches journalism courses and freelances, running Operation Shoebox is a full-time job. He’ll often be at the building on nights to supervise Girl Scouts or other volunteers as they pack, or running a large event on the weekend.
But there’s no part of running the organization—not the thank you messages from troops, or sending another set of boxes overseas—that makes what he does particularly gratifying, Hirsch said.
“I’ve never really looked at it that way,” he said. “It was just something we could do and wanted to do. We have a lot of Vietnam veterans who are helping their brothers at arms.
“It’s really become one big family,” he added. “It’s really simple. There’s no agenda.”