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Gratitude for emergency responders

Anthony Vitalo (left), a Rivers Casino poker dealer, sings the Star-Spangled Banner. He is joined on stage by 2nd Police District community relations officer Mark Mroz and Emily Dones, community relations manager at Rivers.

Rivers Casino and California-based Operation Gratitude last Thursday morning teamed up to assemble 10,000 care packages for local emergency responders.

The effort came as the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks approaches.

The assembly line took place in Rivers’ Event Center. Volunteers filled plastic bags with items such as ground coffee, hand sanitizer, water, American flag facemasks, protein bars, energy drink, a handmade survival bracelet and drink mix. The bags were placed in large cardboard boxes for delivery.

Mark Mroz, community relations officer in the 2nd Police District, served as DJ, playing patriotic and Philadelphia-themed songs.

Among those in attendance was retired Air Force Maj. Gen. James C. Johnson, the new CEO of Operation Gratitude. Johnson began his job on Aug. 23.

From left: City Councilman Mark Squilla, state Rep. Danilo Burhos and Emily Dones, community relations manager at Rivers Casino.

Johnson called for a moment of silence for those killed during the terrorist attacks and the military members killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. He encouraged Americans to say “thank you” to military members by writing a letter here.

Also on hand were City Councilman Mark Squilla (D-1st dist.); state Rep. Danilo Burgos (D-197th dist.); police Chief Inspector Altovise Love-Craighead, of the Community Relations Bureau; and Robert Wilkins, assistant fire chief.

“This is a great thing we’re doing,” Squilla said. “It shows you the dedication we have in the city of Philadelphia.”

Rivers rolled out the red carpet for Operation Gratitude, with employees volunteering to fill the care packages and singing the Star-Spangled Banner and God Bless America, accompanied by a police department honor guard.

Officers in the 26th Police District and a group of gals known as the Battlin’ Betties were also among the volunteers.

The care packages will go not only to local first responders, but firefighters from Shanksville, Somerset County, where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed on Sept. 11, 2001, after being hijacked by terrorists.

Operation Gratitude was founded in 2003 by Carolyn Blashek, who started volunteering at the Bob Hope Hollywood USO at Los Angeles International Airport after the terrorist attacks.

In March 2003, Operation Gratitude sent its first four care packages to deployed service members in Iraq. Since its inception, the organization has encouraged millions of Americans to express their gratitude through hands-on volunteerism, in turn lifting the spirits of more than 3.3  million deployed troops, recruit graduates, veterans, military families, first responders and healthcare heroes.

Operation Gratitude recognizes that many of the nation’s heroes were inspired to serve by the 9/11 attacks. Now, 20 years later, the care packages assembled aim to offer a reminder to men and women in uniform that Americans across the country continue to support them and appreciate their service and sacrifice.

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