After receiving a deployment care package full of melted and expired items, Navy photojournalist turned small businesswoman Chelsea Mandello created Troopster so anyone could send in-tact personalized care packages to deployed troops.
Recalling a months-long deployment at sea, Mandello told American Military News that she, like many others, started to feel isolated from her family.
“You’re already in a tenuous situation where you don’t have a cell phone. You aren’t able to talk to your family every day. Even if you had email, we cut it off for security reasons. So, you don’t really have constant communication that we’re all used to,” Mandello said.
That all changed for a moment when she received a care package that made her feel like she finally had “this direct tie to home.” Mandello’s excitement was short-lived, however, because when she opened the care package, everything inside was either melted or expired. Devasted, Mandello dubbed the delivery a “heartbreak in a box.”
Unfortunately, she wasn’t alone – many of her fellow service members received similarly disappointing packages.
“There’s a tension in the air because everyone the morning of was very happy and chatty, but by the end of the day, you’ve got a ship of 3,000 people who are suddenly very quiet, and we’re all standing in a line in this one area where everyone throws everything away. Some people are making light jokes about it, but that positive energy is just depleted,” Mandello recalled.
Surrounded by demoralized troops, Mandello became determined to find a more reliable way to send care packages.
“I didn’t want to tell my mom that everything had gone bad. I just wanted to make it a little easier. But I was really, really surprised that I couldn’t find anything [online]. I could find donation packs, but I couldn’t find a site where someone like my mom could go online and personalize it,” Mandello said.
Over the next several weeks, Mandello spent her free time coming up with a plan to create her own military care package company. She read “how-to for dummies” books on her lunch break and took a “boots to business” class offered by the U.S. military in conjunction with the Small Business Administration — and Troopster was born.
Mandello said she launched her new business out of her home while still serving in the Navy. She laughed as she described converting old pallets into shelving for products.
In her first year, Troopster sent around two dozen packages. Now, just five years later, Mandello has moved Troopster into a warehouse outside of Richmond, Va., and has sent over 35,000 care packages.
While her own “heartbreak in a box” initially sparked the idea for Troopster, Mandello said helping troops fight depression is what drives her every day.
“Troopster has a massive impact on fighting depression among troops. That’s one of the big issues that personally drives me, because I lost quite a lot of friends from suicide in the military,” she told American Military News. “I stayed with one friend after we found her just a little too late. I had another friend who unfortunately jumped off the ship and we tried to save him. Those were all instances that should not have happened. It is a problem in the military.”
“But getting something, such as a care pack, can have such an impact by letting the person know that it’s going to be alright and this isn’t forever. Just hold on, someone’s thinking of you,” Mandello added.
She hopes to “not just become the household name for care packages,” but to “get a care package into the hands of every person that’s deployed.”
Mandello said Troopster is getting ready to launch a new website, which will include additional package choices. In the meantime, users can send a variety of personalized care packages, including a $15 option that ships “a great care package to a deployed service member” who doesn’t have “a family support network back home,” the website states.
Users can also support squadrons and entire units.
For those with loved ones overseas, signing up for a subscription box will get a care package in a deployed service member’s hands every month.
“When you subscribe, we’ll send a pack out monthly, with new items each month to help get them through their deployment,” Troopster’s website states. “These packs are filled with anything and everything your troop needs and wants during their deployment, such as jerky, hygiene products, games, apparel, snacks, food, toiletries and more!”
As Troopster continues to change and grow in an effort to boost troops’ morale, Mandello said one thing is for certain: Troopster care packages are heartbreak-free.