A chance to show their appreciation

From the outside, it looked like any non-descript, cold warehouse, one of many in a row in an industrial park in the Pittsburgh area.

Once you stepped foot inside, though, you felt a difference. You felt the warmth of what takes place behind the large grey garage doors, in a vast warehouse where nothing but love is shared.

The warehouse is home to Operation Troop Appreciation, an organization run by the dedication and commitment of a team made up of nothing but volunteers who have the sole purpose of making sure those in the military from the Pittsburgh area are taken care of.

Operation Troop Appreciation (OTA) was founded in July, 2004, and since then they have provided care packages and essentials from wish lists to 161,000 deployed troop members.

In 2014 they launched their welcome home veterans program, already helping 3,500 families of veterans from the Pittsburgh area.

On Tuesday afternoon, they got a hand putting together the welcome home packages from several Steelers players, who themselves have military connections.

L.J. Fort, Terrell Watson, Jerald Hawkins and Jordan Dangerfield joined the volunteers to prepare the packages.

"I think it's very cool that people do this, especially helping the people in Pennsylvania, the veterans who make the ultimate sacrifice of going out there and fighting for our freedom," said Watson, whose brother, Deshawn Watson, is currently serving in the Army. "It's really cool that people do this for the community. Pittsburgh is a family community. What they do here shows their love for the community, and how much they care about the veterans and people who serve who give us the privilege to do what we do every day."

The packages included the essentials for those just settling in to their new surroundings. The organization provides new beds for all family members, as well as bedding, household supplies and necessities that many of us take for granted.

"It's a way to give a hand up to veterans who are transitioning from the military, or may be coming out of inpatient care, or were homeless and are now able to get residence and a job and move forward with their lives," said Monica Orluk, volunteer CEO of OTA. "We identified a gap in the services our veterans receive. While they get government support for housing and occupational therapy, once they get into their home they have very little in the way of personal possessions and don't have a way to get them. This way they can focus on their recovery and they don't have to worry about all of the basic things you need to live everyday life."

The players went from shelf to shelf, pulling items that ranged from cleaning supplies and batteries, to pots and pans and dishes. Family by family they made sure everyone had what they needed.

"It's an honor to be here," said Hawkins, whose brothers Warren and Chester both currently serve in the Army. "I know what my brothers have gone through protecting this country. It's an honor to help others when they come back. I didn't realize this existed. It's awesome the things they do, how organized they are and how willing they are to help our troops. There are a lot of great people in this world."

As the cold weather and holidays approach, the need gets even greater for OTA. A need that Fort understands as he has seen friends who return from the service go through the trials and tribulations that many in the military go through.

"We have close friends you see struggle when they come back," said Fort, whose parents, Larry and Amy have both served in the military. "It's cool to be able to help out in any kind of way. It's an awesome experience to come out here and see what goes on behind the scenes. You don't realize how big the need is until you get out there. You see the volunteers out here putting their time in. It's impressive."

As they went about completing each step, you could see their appreciation for what the volunteers do on a daily basis, and even more so what those who are serving in the military do.

"To have the support of the Steelers and Steelers Nation, it's a Godsend to us," said Orluk. "I think that is the significance of why we have been successful in Pittsburgh. Everybody in Pittsburgh has a brother, sister, mother, father or friend who has served in the military. We are the largest veteran community in the country. To have the players who have that significant relationship, to know what it means when someone in your family gets deployed, and not knowing if they are safe, not hearing from them for long stretches of time, it's a challenging situation to be in. That appreciation is felt and people can take that appreciation and put it to tangible use by helping to serve those still deployed or have come home and need a little help."

If you would like to help, you can donate here: www.operationtroopappreciation.org.

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