From The Virginia-Pilot
For deployed service members, getting a care package means more than just what’s inside; it’s a little piece of home.
And so when Chelsea Mandello, a former Navy photographer assigned to the USS Kearsarge, finally got her mother’s Christmas package during her 11-month deployment, she was excited. Until she opened it up.
“Everything was ruined,” said the 31-year-old founder and CEO of Troopster, a Norfolk-based care package business for service members. “The chocolate was everywhere, the muffins and banana nut bread were stale, even items from the Kentucky State Fair didn’t last.”
That’s when Mandello, who was honorably discharged in May, decided to change her life. To make sure that other service members would not encounter the same bad luck, she launched Troopster on Thanksgiving Day in 2015. She was surprised there were no other services like hers already online.
On her first day in business, Mandello was worried about two outcomes — that no one would order from Troopster or that she’d have 100 orders and be overwhelmed.
And for the first week and a half, there were no orders. But then there was finally one, the wife of a deployed sailor.
“I am still in contact with that young woman. I emailed her to ask her advice on how to improve my website,” Mandello said. She then started offering pre-made packages and streamlined the choices.
For three years, she worked two jobs — as a photojournalist with the Navy and as a young entrepreneur getting Troopster off the ground. Mandello used up all her leave to launch her company.
“Sometimes I would put in a 24-hour shift with the Navy and then go home and pack two dozen care packages right after,” she said.
And a few times, those two jobs collided on another level.
“While working for the Navy, I would sometimes have a meeting scheduled during my lunch break with financial advisers for Troopster,” she said. “I would wear professional clothes beneath my Navy uniform and take off the combat boots and uniform for the meeting and then put them back on after.”
Now, almost four years later, with 60 different care package options, and more than 7,000 packages sent, she has lofty goals for her and her four employees. “I would like to end up the year surpassing 10,000 packages.”
Over the past year, Troopster’s revenue and grants have exceeded $60,000.
Early on, Mandello saw that Troopster, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit company, could transcend being a mere business. It could be transformative.
“There are a lot of servicemen and women who don’t receive packages from their family members,” Mandello said. “They email us with their stories, and we try to send them a package as well through our donations.”
To respond to that need, she includes links on her website, troopster.org, for people to donate to someone who requests a care package.
Troopster receives grants from outside organization and has partnerships with chain restaurants such as Jersey Mike’s and Tijuana Flats.
And she and Chris Gronkowski, the older brother of former NFL player Rob Gronkowski, have formed a partnership. Gronkowski’s company, Ice Shaker, which specializes in shaker bottles donates one of its bottles to Mandello for every one it sells.
More than just selling pre-made packages, Mandello likes to add personalized touches, whether it’s a photo from the purchasing family, or including a USB drive of Xbox updates for service members stationed in places without Wi-Fi. For senders, Troopster costs less since there is no shipping cost because they receive bulk shipping rates.
Once, she crafted a Steelers package. “For one care package, the family wanted us to put in a letter that a little boy about 8 wrote a letter to his overseas dad. It talked about the Steelers. So we decided to buy Pittsburgh Steelers stuff and put it in the care package — Terrible Towel, a mug, etc.,” Mandello said.
Troopster employee Haley Aguilar, also a Navy veteran, finds her boss’ drive motivating.
“She puts her all into Troopster, and her passion for her work makes me want to do the same,” said the former Navy aviation technician.
Aguilar had a similar negative experience with care packages before working at Troopster. A glitch in the shipping rerouted her husband’s care package to Guantanomo Bay instead of the USS George H.W. Bush.
Another employee, Savannah Hutchins, is a business major at Old Dominion University. For a course project, she had to create an idea and pitch it to a panel of professors. Coincidentally, it happened to look a lot like Troopster.
“So, the judges put me in touch with Chelsea, and I’ve been here ever since,” said Hutchins, a Navy veteran as well. “I’ve been in their shoes,” she said of those currently serving. “There is gratitude when you get that box.”
There’s gratitude from the sender as well. Mandello’s mother, Cynthia, whose original ruined care package to Chelsea inspired her daughter to create Troopster, said she would have used her daughter’s service.
“Clicking a few buttons to send a care package is hugely easier than thinking, buying, packing, boxing and filling out the customs forms,” she said.
Warren Warsaw, email@example.com
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