In another life, Carol Watanabe, founder and executive director of Little Patriots Embraced, designed and sold quilts to hospitals for their newborn programs.

“Early one morning, I woke up to a design in my head…got it on paper and sent it to my factory for samples,” she recalled. “I loved the design, but it wasn’t one I could sell to hospitals. It was a patriotic design; and at that point, I still had no idea why I was compelled to bring it to life.”

A few weeks later, Watanabe found herself in California for an industry conference. The date was Sept. 10, 2001.

“I had the design with me, but still not understanding the significance until after that next day,” she said. “Everyone has their 9/11 story. Through all of the confusion and that long drive back to St. Louis in a rental car, I had time to think about our military and wondered what would happen next.”

Fast-forward to December 2003, when Watanabe met a mother of two (soon to be three) at a holiday party.

“This young lady was crying, so I asked if I could help her. She said her husband left for Iraq, and wouldn’t be here for the birth of the child she carried,” Watanabe recalled. “She insisted that she wasn’t crying about serving her country, but instead she was sad because there was no organization that could show love for her kids and be of emotional support to her…she just wanted to know that someone cared.”

That was the sign Watanabe needed. In 2004, she founded Little Patriots Embraced, which has since served more than 57,000 military children and thousands of families. Among the organization’s main programs are Project Bear Essentials, which focuses on helping young children cope with the emotional stress of a parent’s deployment; and Military Kids Fit for Life, which addresses the importance of healthy eating and fitness, as well as building self-esteem.

The organization’s overarching focus has been the families it serves, according to Watanabe, who recalls an email they received from a military sergeant this summer.

“He was worried he would never be able to send his daughter to space camp. His 13-year-old daughter wants to be an astronaut,” she explained.

The sergeant had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and was dying. He and his wife, who is also in the military, turned to LPE for help with granting the unusual request.

LPE coordinated with the family’s readiness officer to raise funds, as well as continued to keep up with the sergeant’s condition and any of the family’s special needs. In August, the sergeant got his wish.

“He was able to see the videos and pictures, and he was so happy to know that he sent his daughter to space camp!” said Watanabe, adding that it was a happy moment during an otherwise difficult time for the family. “He was going on hospice the next day, the day his daughter left for space camp.”

On Sept. 21, Watanabe received a late-night text from the sergeant’s wife, informing her husband has passed away.

“We will continue to serve this family for a while…until we know all is well.”

 

MISSION

To enhance the lives of our military families in need, while their loved one is protecting our freedom.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

The organization’s 2017 Holiday Toy Drive runs through Nov. 30.

Donations of unwrapped toys, books, games and gift cards for children (newborn to 17 years old) are welcome.

Visit littlepatriotsembraced.org for a list of drop-off locations.