Faces of OW
Over the last 23 years, Operation Warm has built a network of people who care about and support children in need.
These are the faces that help to tell the story of who we are.
Learn more about our past features
Rachel Kesselman - Corporate Funder
The first time Rachel Kesselman attended an Operation Warm event at a coworker’s request, she saw an opportunity for her entire team to make a wide-reaching difference. A communications advisor at FedEx, Kesselman is responsible for company-wide global citizenship, corporate social responsibility, and volunteerism initiatives through FedEx Cares, the shipping giant’s global community engagement program. “I had a broader vision for what FedEx could do if we collaborated with Operation Warm to create a team member engagement program,” she said.
Twelve years later, FedEx now funds coat-gifting events in more than 30 markets across the U.S. and Canada. Recently, with the addition of shoes to Operation Warm’s product offerings, the number of FedEx gifting events has doubled, and the company has also expanded its program to serve children in Chile. “It’s a great opportunity to get out there, give back, and show our commitment to being a good steward of the communities where we live and work,” said Kesselman. “It’s also a good way to retain team members and encourage them to be a part of the FedEx culture.”
Corporate volunteerism has never been more important to attracting talent, with more than 70% of employees saying it’s important to work for a company that encourages giving back. Kesselman reported that FedEx team members not only feel great about making a difference through volunteering, but they form meaningful connections with colleagues at all levels of the organization. “Working together on a common mission is a lowkey way to network and meet other people at FedEx,” she explained. “We also have team members who raise their hands and want to help lead these events locally within their markets. This is a chance for them to build transferable skills that can be used in leadership roles later on.”
For many FedEx team members, engagement doesn’t stop when the coat or shoe-gifting event is over. After spending time at a local school, volunteers often recognize other needs in the community and end up collecting additional items throughout the year, such as school supplies and groceries for kids to take home to their families. One FedEx team in Chicago collected thousands of pairs of socks to distribute along with Operation Warm shoes. “They also come up with all these really creative ideas to make our program better year over year,” said Kesselman. For example, a team in Albuquerque held an outdoor “touch-a-truck” event, where kids got a chance to climb inside the FedEx vehicles that delivered their brand-new coats. At some locations, kids even got to meet Roxo™, FedEx’s autonomous delivery robot.
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the FedEx team’s willingness to think outside of the box was particularly impactful. Since in-person interactions weren’t possible, many companies had put corporate giving on hold. Not so at FedEx, where teams devised unique ways to make coat-gifting events special while maintaining social distancing. Parades outside the beneficiary schools created an atmosphere of excitement while keeping everyone safe. FedEx employees showed up to deliver coats in their personal vehicles—with plenty of streamers and balloons.
That said, the FedEx team is looking forward to a return of events that allow for more personal connections. In the past, kids have enjoyed expressing their thanks with dance performances, songs, and at one Dallas school, a breakfast with dishes that showcased the community’s Mexican-American heritage. “The presence of adults who want to engage with the kids and learn about them and what they’re into means a lot,” said Kesselman. “[The kids we serve] may not have many positive interactions with adults outside of their families. This is a chance for them to have that positive experience and even find a role model for what they want to do next.
Dr. April Thompson-Williams - Beneficiary
Everyone knows everyone at Dr. Henry W. Mack/West Little River K-8 Center in Miami-Dade County. Kids high-five each other in the hallways, and classes share a sense of family that persists even when students move out of the district. “We’re a generation school—for many kids, their parents also attended this school, and so forth,” said Dr. April Thomson-Williams, who has served as principal for the past three years. “We’re also a community school. Parents play an active role in the learning environment.”
But this tight-knit community is not without its share of struggles— especially as the economic impact of the pandemic continues to reverberate, leaving families to contend with inflation and rising housing costs. 97% of the elementary school’s 330 students get free lunch. Many are below the poverty line, living in shelters, or new to the country. Kids attend school in ill-fitting footwear, and some are waiting for older siblings to outgrow—and pass down—their shoes, since their families can’t afford to buy more than one new pair.
Dr. Thomson-Williams sought a way to get the new shoes her students needed. “If a student is worried about their shoes being too small, then they’re not going to be able to learn,” she said. “As educators, we try to help our students every day, but our personal budgets are limited.” An Operation Warm shoegifting event brought much-needed hope. Students got the chance to have their feet properly measured and to select a pair of brand-new, athletic-style shoes in their favorite color. Operation Warm shoes aren’t branded, which was a big plus at Dr. Henry W. Mack/West Little River K-8 Center. “Kids tend to poke fun at each other for not having the latest Jordans, and that’s something we need to get away from,” said Dr. Thomson-Williams. “Everyone having the same style of shoes became the ‘in’ thing.”
Because Operation Warm produces shoes in toddler size 6 through kids’ size 5, the event focused on kids in younger grades. But one participant, who was particularly excited to choose a pair of red shoes, ended up needing a larger size than those available. Fortunately, an Operation Warm volunteer hurried off to a local shoe store to get a pair of shoes that were the perfect fit, ensuring that nobody was left out.
“It wasn’t about making a checkmark on a list,” said Dr. Thomson-Williams. “It was about that child coming away from school with a pair of shoes that finally fit and that he can wear every day. I know that as this student moves forward in life, he will carry a lasting impression with him.”
She and the staff are also carrying forward the spirit of the shoe-giving event by gifting new shoes as part of a welcome package for new students and by planning another event at the start of the next school year to provide items like backpacks and socks. “It’s all about building relationships and about parents understanding that we care for and value their child,” said Dr. Thomson-Williams. “We want them to know they are part of a loving community.”
Mitchell Stulken - Volunteer
From his full-time role as COO of marketing agency Ignite Your Brand to parenting his three kids to helping friends with side projects, Mitchell Stulken is constantly on the go. But despite his busy life, Stulken was looking for ways to make a difference. After learning about Operation Warm’s need for a Google Ads expert, Stulken volunteered his digital marketing skills to help us boost our visibility online. “My wife and I like to volunteer, but it’s hard to find opportunities for stuff that you’re really good at,” said Stulken. “For instance, we help with Special Olympics basketball, but I’m not good at basketball! [Managing Google Ads] is something I know how to do and a lot of people don’t.”
The challenge is a familiar one—many people want to give back to their community but struggle to connect with the right opportunities. Skilled volunteering is a way to contribute and add value to nonprofits that can’t afford the kind of expertise someone like Stulken provides. “Google Ads consultants command hefty fees—deservedly so, since the job requires a lot of time and expertise,” said Brenda Lee, Vice President of Marketing and Programs at Operation Warm. “Mitchell does this out of the goodness of his heart.”
Stulken’s help came at the perfect time. Google gives qualifying nonprofits $10,000 a month in free advertising—an opportunity that’s hard to take advantage of without professional help to optimize your search marketing efforts. Without a dedicated Google Ads expert, Operation Warm was spending only about $200 each month of our free ad budget. “I did a little research on my end to find out which keywords to go after and how we could get Operation Warm in front of a lot more people,” said Stulken. “Now, if people are searching for how to donate coats and shoes, we show up in their search results.”
Thanks to Stulken’s efforts, Operation Warm now uses an average of $4,000 of free advertising each month and sometimes even maxes out the allowance. What started as a short-term project has become a long-term relationship. “In my industry, a lot of professionals are very project-focused,” said Stulken. “From growing up on a farm, my mentality was always to not just get the job done but make sure things keep going.”
In 2021, Operation Warm also had the opportunity to provide help close to Stulken’s home by gifting 100 brand-new winter coats to his community. A large apartment building had recently burned down, leaving residents without the coats they needed to stay warm during the brutal South Dakota winter. Stulken’s connection to Operation Warm helped to make a difference when it was most needed—an example of the importance of building strong networks across the communities we serve.
“When people think of a hero, they don’t always think of a search marketing professional or a business strategist or a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant,” said Lee. “But it’s skilled, caring volunteers like Mitchell who help our small team do more with less and make our mission possible.”