A newsmaker you should know: Soldier support started small but quickly gained traction


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When Kristen Holloway Querriera asked a friend's brother what would make his deployment in Iraq more comfortable, he said help with the sweltering heat -- which frequently soars to 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

So, the Mt. Lebanon woman asked friends and family to donate $25 apiece to purchase moisture-wicking apparel for the soldiers in the man's 49-member platoon.

Donations poured in and the entire company of 117 soldiers was sent clothing and enough funds were left over to also buy personal hygiene items and snacks.

Since its founding in 2004, the group has raised more than $1 million in cash donations.

Mrs. Querriera, who was then working at PPG Industries and studying for her master's degree at the University of Pittsburgh, emailed the dean of the business school about her plan to start a nonprofit to aid soldiers.

"I told him there was clearly a need for help from home," Mrs. Querriera said.

With dean Rick Winter's approval, she leveraged the expertise of the school, students, faculty and alumni and used volunteer legal, accounting and web design work to create Operation Troop Appreciation, which kicked off July 1, 2004.

The organization provides deployed military members with care packages of items to make their lives more comfortable, such as apparel, socks, grooming and hygiene items, snacks, books and more. The items are acquired through in-kind or cash donations from individuals, small business partnerships and corporate sponsors.

"We are not trying to supplant the system; but often a better quality product can be provided and provided faster since there is no red tape," she said.

For its first three years, the organization was housed in Mrs. Querriera's basement until the need for larger inventory and packing space shifted operations to the Hunt Armory in Shadyside.

Then in 2010, the organization moved into its rent-free, 6,500-square-feet ground-level storefront space in Century III Mall in West Mifflin.

About 50 volunteers accept donations and craft packages while also guiding visitors through the store's military tribute section and greeting cards for service members.

As CEO, Mrs. Querriera handles bookkeeping, corresponds with soldiers about aid, special orders military items and more. The organization also has a president, vice president and a six-member board of directors.

With no paid staff or overhead and with donated professional services, the organization is able to spend on the troops about 98 cents of every $1 donated.

Volunteers pack about 75, 50-pound cartons a month to ship overseas.

"We strive to spread the wealth as much as possible," she said, of the effort to reach as many troops as they can.

An exception is a unit in Afghanistan whose base was destroyed by an enemy attack in April, which the organization supports on a regular basis.

The packages also help forge bonds, such as "wish list" gloves requested by infantry troops in Iraq. The captain sent a photograph of the glove-wearers, plus a note that a terrorist was captured by soldiers while wearing the gloves.

Another tie was solidified after soldiers in Iraq requested guitars for a diversion after their barracks were burned by enemy mortar.

"They were very grateful for the guitars we sent and wrote letters and sent photos," Mrs. Querriera said.

Two months later, she received an email that said three of the soldiers had been kidnapped and killed.

"It was the first time we felt such a loss," she said of the group.

A connection with a happier ending occurred when a soldier requested clothing and shoes for Iraqi children. She scoured garage sales to find the items.

More emails were exchanged, and she met the soldier -- Charles Querriera -- upon his return home to California. The couple married after a three-year, long-distance courtship and today are the parents of a young son.

Among her numerous awards and recognition for her work, Mrs. Querriera has been honored twice by President George W. Bush as recipient of the Presidential Volunteer Service Award and in a speech on volunteerism while a guest at the White House.

But notoriety is not what drives her.

"I just love what our military does for our nation," she said.

Details: www.operationtroopappreciation.org or 412-653-1317.

KRISTEN HOLLOWAY QUERRIERA

AGE: 37

HOMETOWN: Mt. Lebanon; born and raised in Coatesville, Chester County

OCCUPATION: CEO and founder of Operation Troop Appreciation

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree from Juniata College; master's degree from University of Pittsburgh

FAMILY: Husband and son

WHAT'S IMPORTANT?

"Supporting our troops in a tangible way that leaves a positive emotional impact"

FIRST JOB: Accountant at PPG Industries

AND WHEN YOU WERE A KID, YOU WANTED TO BE? Wonder Woman -- or a nurse

HOBBIES: Reading, walking

BOOKS ON NIGHT STAND: "World Without End," by Ken Follett

WHAT'S ON TV? "Touch," "Grimm," "Desperate Housewives"

FANTASY CELEBRITY DINNER DATE: Former U.S. Army soldier J.R. Martinez, who was severely burned in Iraq, and who won on "Dancing With the Stars:" "He's an inspiration."

WHO WOULD PLAY YOU IN A MOVIE ABOUT YOUR LIFE? Evangeline Lilly: "People say I look like her."

GUILTY PLEASURE: Reruns of "Gomer Pyle USMC."

FAVORITE SPOT IN THE WORLD: "Sitting in my rocking chair reading to my son."

MOST EMBARRASSING MOMENT: "Giving a speech in front of my eighth grade and not knowing my zipper was down."

PROUDEST MOMENT, SO FAR: Meeting President George W. Bush to accept an award for Operation Troop Appreciation

GOALS: "To be the best wife and mother I can be."

WHAT'S ON YOUR BUCKET LIST? African safari

neigh_south

Margaret Smykla, freelance writer; suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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