I would like to update you on Andrew Weinstock, Operation Gratitude and the Halloween candy collection. With your help, the help of more than 11 schools, neighborhoods, volunteers, the city of Winter Park, countless stores and businesses with candy collection boxes, the media and military personnel, Andrew collected 5,666 pounds of Halloween candy for our deployed soldiers.
What a truly amazing accomplishment for a 15-year-old to do in just three weeks! The entire community of Central Florida helped and deserves to know what they helped him accomplish.
So many stories have come out since the candy-packing day at our home. First, let me tell you that it was an amazing day. The Winter Park Fire Rescue Department was here helping to pack the candy along with the Winter Park Mayor Ken Bradley, army reservists, enlisted men and women still on active duty and in full uniform asking Andrew what needed to be done and taking direction from him. There were children of all ages, teachers, a school principal, store owners, neighbors, total strangers and of course Andrew's family, all here to help pack carton after carton, pallet after pallet. They packed a total of 68 cartons and filled nine shipping pallets! It was the most organized chaos I have ever seen. Several of the army reservists brought their families, which included very young children. These young children obviously knew the importance of the candy because there were thousands of pieces of chocolate candy bars, gummy bears, M&Ms and lollipops all around them yet not one child asked for a piece of candy, cried for a piece of candy or took a piece of candy and put it in their pocket! These children knew that their mission was to pack the candy and not to eat it!
While I was packing a box, the man helping me told me a story about his experience with the Halloween candy. I stopped packing, looked up at the man who was dressed in full uniform and listened to his story. Tears filled my eyes. The man was a sergeant, still on active duty and told me how the candy has saved not only his life but also the lives of the men and women in his platoon. This is the story he told me:
“As we drive through a town on a mission, we see all the streets are empty. We know something is ‘going down.’ I tell my soldiers to throw candy, throw it into the streets, like they do in a parade. Before we can blink, 300 children run into the streets to get the sweet treat. As soon as that happens we know we are safe and the snipers will not shoot. The snipers will not shoot if the children are in harm’s way, so we must keep the children running into the streets, running to get more and more candy. Our soldiers pass through the town unharmed. If we are on a mission and have little food, we have candy to hold us over. The candy is life-saving in so many ways! We can never have enough candy. It is one of the things we continually ask our families to send to us.”
The sergeant's voice was cracking, and I asked him to tell this story to the volunteers who were here packing the candy, the candy that saves lives. The sergeant didn't want to draw attention to himself, but I explained that his story is the reason Andrew collects the candy. The sergeant told his story to the volunteers, which brought a new sense of meaning to the Halloween candy collection, to Andrew's efforts and to what our deployed soldiers must be enduring each day. When the sergeant finished speaking there was not a dry eye in the crowd. The volunteers clapped for the sergeant who turned to Andrew. He then said, "The real hero is Andrew and his efforts to help the soldiers. It takes a hero to do what he has done!"
On Tuesday the candy pallets were picked up to begin their long journey from Orlando to Operation Gratitude's headquarters in Van Nuys, Calif., and to their final destination: soldiers deployed in remote areas of the world, probably Afghanistan. In the meantime, Andrew has received many emails and phone calls thanking him for his efforts. He has even received a few donations from total strangers who want to help defer the shipping expense. Andrew also received an amazing gift and card from a young, local veteran who met Andrew and wanted to help collect candy for Operation Gratitude. Excerpting his comments, he said: "I just wanted to say thank you. What you have done with this candy collection and the support you show are the reasons why we serve and fight for this country. People are heroes for different reasons. I once was given this as a token for a heroic act. I now turn and give this to you, as in my eyes you are a true hero. Thank you for all you have done." This sergeant in the USMC gave Andrew his bronze star that he was awarded for his valor during his service in Iraq. Andrew tried to refuse it, but this soldier insisted. As Andrew's mother I am at a complete loss as to what to say. There are no words to describe this honor.
I am telling you these stories because you helped give Andrew's project wings to fly. I was unsure if Andrew would meet his goal of collecting 5,000 pounds of candy. Andrew continually assured me he would, but I admit I was not as sure as he was. With your help and the help of hundreds if not thousands of total strangers participating in this project, people donated 5,666 pounds of Halloween candy! Andrew has been collecting Halloween candy since 2009 and has collected more then 10,900 pounds of candy! Thank you for helping this project take flight and sore to new heights. The Orlando community not only helped Andrew but the men and women who serve our country and help to keep us safe.
The Weinstock family lives in Winter Park. Visit operationgratitude.com for more information on Operation Gratitude.