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Back-to-School Brigade Volunteers See Themselves in the Families They Serve

By Operation Homefront

July 5, 2018

Deb Mullinex (left) with our Director of Volunteers, Charlotte Merriam (middle) and volunteer captain, Meleeza Brown (left). Deb and Meleeza are both long term volunteers with Operation Homefront.

Giving, caring and sharing is at the heart of every Operation Homefront (OH) volunteer and Deb Mullinax is a great example of that generous spirit. Deb has been volunteering for OH for over 16 years, first as a Navy spouse in Norfolk, Virginia, and now as a team captain in Jacksonville, Florida. She plans to continue helping military families because she remembers what it was like for her as a military child.

“I saw my mother struggle with three kids being military,” Deb said.  “I knew what it was like for her, and I know it hasn’t changed.  Until my father made officer, it was really hard.”  Deb’s father retired from the Navy after 30 years.

In October, Deb’s husband, Max, also retired from the Navy as a master chief with 30 years of service, including 26 years of sea duty.  She and Max married in 1992, were stationed in Norfolk for over 20 years, and moved to Florida in 2012.

The next event Deb helps with will be the Back-to-School Brigade (BTSB).  Each summer, near military bases across the country, OH distributes backpacks filled with most of the school supplies military children need to succeed in school. The supplies are generously donated by OH partners, like Dollar Tree, whose customers support the program at thousands of stores nationwide.  Since 2008, OH’s BTSB program has distributed over 300,000 backpacks to military families, saving them money and hassle because they often face special challenges such as frequent relocations and deployments.

Deb adores seeing the kids’ faces light up.  But even more, “I like to see the look of the young parent that can’t afford to buy stuff,” she said.  “The relief of the sailors themselves. That’s my satisfaction.  And that’s my husband’s satisfaction.”

Deb said it’s even harder for today’s parents because schools give them a two-page list of items their kids are supposed to bring.  “If you have a family of three or four, you cannot do it on their budget,” Deb said.  “Their pay has not gone up much at all.”

When military families get transferred to a new base, they are only allowed to bring belongings weighing a certain amount, taking up a certain amount of space, so sometimes they must leave behind items such as backpacks and their contents, Deb said.

Junior enlisted families receive priority registering for BTSB, for children 5 and up.  Not wanting to leave out kids under 5, Deb put together sacks for little ones too young to receive a backpack, using drawstring bags donated by Whataburger and various items she had left over from previous collections.  “They were ecstatic over it,” she said.  “They got their own ‘backpack.’  They wanted their picture taken with it and everything.  That was awesome.”

In early July, Deb contacts Dollar Tree store managers to arrange supply pickups.  With 10 stores to collect from, Deb might drive 100 miles or more over two days, filling their truck, at personal expense.  The couple has learned to live with stacks and piles of donated goods temporarily stored at their home.  The night before the BTSB event, Deb and Max arrive at the rec center to set up tables and organize.

Deb often works with another long-time OH volunteer team captain, Meleeza Brown, an assistant manager at Navy Federal Credit Union.  “I love doing it,” said Meleeza, whose husband retired from the Navy 18 years ago as an E-6.  “I really love to give back to the military family.”

Meleeza will keep volunteering because she remembers tight budgets when her husband was an E-3.  “We’ve been there — I know how it is.”  She can relate because the Browns have three grown children.  “When it’s time for back to school, when you don’t have enough to buy everything the kids need … it’s kind of difficult.”

Deb and Meleeza also help recruit and train OH volunteers, and assist with other Operation Homefront programs, including Holiday Toy Drive and Holiday Meals for Military (HMFM), which provide toys and holiday meal ingredients to service members and their families.

“I see that E-1, E-2, E-3 parent … excited that they got either food or what they need for their kids’ supplies,” Deb said.  “Just to see the relief on the parent’s face — my kid’s going to get a bike, my kid’s going to get that basketball.  When they come to pick up a meal, they don’t care what’s in it — they have something. … That’s why I do it. This is my passion.”


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