Meet Starbucks partners who are joining with Operation Gratitude and Blue Star Families to support the well-being of the military community.
When Jamie Dean tries to explain how proud she is of her son’s military service, words aren’t big enough to contain all she feels.
She feels it in her body though, a warmth that’s centered in her heart. When she got to meet his Naval ship as it returned to port two years ago, she couldn’t stop shaking and crying as she waited for her boy, now a chief petty officer, the fourth generation in her family to serve in the military. “I just can’t even describe it,” she says.
Her family shows up for their country. And Dean, a Navy veteran and Starbucks Store manager, prides herself in showing up for her family.
But a little more than a year ago, she couldn’t. Just four hours after her son and daughter-in-law had their third child, her son had to deploy for four months. Dean yearned to help. In normal times, “I would have been on a plane in a heartbeat,” she says.
But these weren’t normal times. COVID-19 was beginning to take hold in the U.S., turning everything upside down. Traveling to Hawaii, where her son’s family was based, wasn’t allowed. But Blue Star Families, a nonprofit organization that works to help military families connect with their communities, stepped in to help organize meals and support for her daughter-in-law.
“If I can do one iota to help (Blue Star Families) that’s what we’re here for,” says Dean, who manages a Military Family Store in Riverside, California.
This May, during Military Appreciation Month, Starbucks recognizes the commitment made by the soldiers on the front lines and the families holding down the home front, and the efforts of partners like Dean who are supporting their mission.
As part of Starbucks commitment to responding to the needs of the military community, the company is partnering with Operation Gratitude and Blue Star Families to support the mental health and well-being of veterans and military families. For each new Starbucks Military eGift card activated during the month of May, Starbucks will donate $5, to be divided equally between the two organizations.
Matt Kress, senior manager of Veteran and Military Affairs at Starbucks, says that partnerships like those with Blue Star Families and Operation Gratitude can help build understanding and empathy between civilians and military service members through community events.
Kress served 22 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, including a special operations combat deployment to Iraq. He also is a retired firefighter and EMT (emergency medical technician). He understands that mental health issues can be hard to share, but he encourages others to do so.
“Tell the truth of what you have experienced, you will find people that will receive it with compassion and understanding,” he says. “Once you have been heard and understood, there are a wealth of resources to support you and your family.”
A commitment to veterans, military families
Starbucks believes veterans and military families make the company better and communities stronger. In fact, Starbucks has hired more than 30,000 veterans and military spouses since 2013, far exceeding company goals, and the company has also dedicated 77 Military Family Stores across the country to help support service members, veterans and military families. These stores are typically near military bases and are usually staffed by veterans and military family members.
Dean’s store is located not far from March Air Force Reserve Base. She’s been a longtime supporter of Blue Star Families. Before COVID, she hosted events with the organization and provided a space where military spouses of a service member with post-traumatic stress could gather monthly for support in a safe environment. Dean would set up a table for them with pastries and coffee.
“It was a place for them to come and talk about their struggles,” she says.
Dean says that when it comes to mental health, she wants to help normalize it. It shouldn’t be any different than seeking help for a medical condition. “Everybody should look at mental health just like they look at diabetes,” she says. “They should know it’s OK. It’s OK to feel this way and get help.”
She sees her store as a place where “veterans can connect with each other and authentically be themselves and feel so proud to be in this store.”
She often thinks about her grandfather, a WWII and Korean War Navy veteran, and her dad, an Army veteran who served in the Vietnam War. Dean herself served in the Navy on active duty for four years and four more in the Navy Reserve.
Her store has a “missing man” table, to honor the memory of those who didn’t come home. “That could have been my dad,” she says, recalling how he was wounded in the Vietnam War and awarded two Purple Hearts.
One wall of her store is covered with handwritten messages of appreciation for members of the military: “Thank you for your service to America, land of the free because of the brave” and “love you, miss you, dad.”
More than anything, she wants people in her store to feel supported, whether they are serving in the military, veterans, military spouses or civilians. She aims to meet them where they are. “I want everyone who walks in to feel welcomed and a sense of belonging,” she says.
Serving those who serve
Danielle Lemus shares that same passion for creating community. About a year ago, when she took over as store manager of a Starbucks in Arlington, Virginia, she realized she had a lot of learning to do – and not just because she was new to the company. Many of her customers worked at the Pentagon or were affiliated with nearby Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, which houses the soldiers who guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arlington National Cemetery.
Neither a veteran nor military family member, Lemus nonetheless began connecting to the military community with something she felt like they did have in common: a commitment to service. She volunteered to put together care packages for military families and built a letter-writing station at her store so customers could send encouraging words to soldiers abroad.
She also became the area lead of the Starbucks Armed Forces Network – a partner (employee) resource group for veterans, military spouses and others interested in supporting the military community – and helped launch a monthly meeting series highlighting partners who’ve served and the lessons they’ve learned.
“I can connect with that piece of it. I have a passion to serve as well,” Lemus says. “While that may be different in how we accomplish that, I admire so much the strength and courage it takes to have to turn away from your families and the people you love for the greater good.”
Lemus’ store, dedicated in mid-April, is Starbucks latest Military Family Store to open. About a third of her partners are military veterans, spouses or family members. One of them is Karl Schmiegel, a partner at the newly dedicated Military Family Store.
Schmiegel is a Marine veteran and the son of Kevin Schmiegel, the chief executive officer of Operation Gratitude, which connects volunteers who provide care packages with donated items and a hand-written letter to millions of deployed troops, veterans, military families and ﬁrst responders.
Schmiegel says he was raised to volunteer and give back and that’s something he’s able to do as a partner at the store. On a recent morning, Lemus, Schmiegel and others hosted a volunteer packing event with Operation Gratitude, making 500 coffee-filled care packages to go to the troops.
Shortly after, Starbucks partners, representatives from Blue Star Families and Operation Gratitude, elected officials, and members of the community joined virtually for a ceremony to dedicate the new Military Family Store. Three, they shared stories and talk about their passion for supporting members of the military, veterans and their families.
“We know that our nation is strongest when our military service members and their families are thriving,” says Penny Bolden, Blue Star Families’ senior director of cause partnerships.
Married to a Marine for more than 20 years, Bolden understands the stress that military families face with frequent moves and unpredictable schedules. Blue Star Families works to help military families connect with their communities, addressing the isolation that can be brought about by frequent moves and deployments. Communities, such as those created in the Military Family Stores, can help them feel at home, she says.
“The partnership with Starbucks is just critical to improving the mental health and resiliency of our servicemembers and their families,” she says.
Lemus, the store manager, is committed to doing all she can to support her customers and partners.
“My purpose is to experience love and harmony by building community and spreading kindness,” she says. “Bringing people together is important to me. It’s something that I value more than anything because I think we can learn so much from each other. We all have so much value to add to this world. How do we come together and make a difference, together? That’s what gets me pumped and excited.”