Business leaders honor SCV veterans, first responders and raise money for Operation Gratitude

Navy air controlman petty officer first class Crystal Money, right, gets a glass of wine from Emma Gonzalez at the Player's Club Valencia for a wine tasting benefitting Operation Gratitude on Tuesday, May 23, 2017. Katharine Lotze/The Signal

Local business leaders gathered at TPC Valencia last evening for a charity wine tasting event to honor the contributions of ten current and former first responders and members of the military.

The event raised money for Operation Gratitude, a non-profit that sends care packages overseas to our deployed troops and first responders, as well as care packages to our veterans at home.

The group, which started sending care packages in 2003, sent its one-millionth package in 2013, and anticipates sending its two-millionth package this December. It sends more than 200,000 packages all over the world each year.

“To see a community bond over this patriotic event, it gives you chills,” said Bryan Hummitzsch, president of Applied Resource Insurance Solutions, a sponsor. “It’s something that we never thought we would see, but it’s a beautiful thing.”

The event is one in a series held quarterly by the Santa Clarita Valley Marketing Group, made up of Santa Clarita business executives who host local networking events that also benefit community non-profit organizations.

Among the ten honorees recognized by Assemblyman Dante Acosta, R-Santa Clarita, is George Keene, a survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack. Kris Hough, on behalf of state Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Antelope Valley, also paid tribute to the honorees at last night’s event.

The diverse group includes active-duty members and veterans of every branch of the military, as well as active and retired first responders, said event organizer Maggie-Mae Laufman. “And seven of our ten honorees have never before been publicly recognized for their service to our community and our nation, so I’m really happy they’re getting the recognition they deserve.”

Every major American military engagement since World War II is represented by at least one of the ten honorees, Laufman said.

Keene’s co-honorees are Kyle Gaughan, Robert Good, Kevin Gregor, Matthew Harer, Lisa Kaul, Janelle Percy, Joshua Rivers, Artie Thompson, and Raymond Torres.

Gaughan, a naval air traffic controller stationed at Point Magu, part of Naval Base Ventura County, is Laufman’s husband. Personnel from the base served as color guard at the event.
Response to the event was overwhelming, Laufman said. “We expected about 80 attendees and received 240 RSVPs.”

Operation Gratitude assembles care packages containing up to fifty food, hygiene, entertainment and handmade items worth up $50 to $100, along with letters of appreciation from children and adults.

Items are donated by individuals, groups, organizations and businesses. Each package costs the non-profit organization $15 to assemble and send.

For last night’s event, local wineries contributed wine, and other local businesses donated a photo booth, staging, flag stanchions, and music. The city of Santa Clarita was also a strong supporter of the event, Laufman said.

The organization hoped to raise $10,000 through a raffle-like opportunity drawing and silent auction.

In addition to sending care packages to the troops, Operation Gratitude sends care kits to law enforcement and firefighting agencies throughout the United States to thank first responders for their service.

It also sends stuffed toys, known as “Battalion Buddies,” to the sons and daughters of U.S. military personnel as their units prepare to deploy. Each child receives the cuddly toy animal at their parent’s pre-deployment or farewell event.

“When people started hearing about this event, it just exploded in our community,” Laufman said. “It’s very humbling to see how many people in our community support our military.

There was a giant wave of support from local businesses in donations of silent auction items from veterans, active-duty, and even politicians!”

The event’s organizing committee included Hummitzsch and Laufman, Thad Letzer from Mass Mutual, attorneys Brian Koegle and Andrew Sevanian with the firm of Poole & Shaffery, TPC Valencia general manager Troy Hooper, and financial advisor James Schramm.

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