America Supports You: Two Girls Continue Treasure Hunt for Troops
By Ashleigh Covington
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 6, 2006 Inspired by the book "A Treasure Trove," by Michael Stadther, and the Disney movie "National Treasure," 10-year-old Rachel and 8-year-old Kelsi Okun created their own scavenger hunt to raise scholarship money for military children and spouses.
Rachel (right) and Kelsi Okun during an event held to promote their organization, "ThanksUSA." The two girls created a national treasure hunt to raise money for scholarships given to family members of active-duty servicemembers. Courtesy photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Their idea, which they dubbed "ThanksUSA," quickly captured the attention of their parents, teacher, neighbors, major corporations and even Congress, blossoming into a national treasure hunt to raise funds for scholarships.
Now a non-profit organization, ThanksUSA has joined the Defense Department's America Supports You program, which showcases Americans' efforts to support servicemembers and their families.
Since the event's Memorial Day weekend kickoff, more than 4,500 participants have signed up. The treasure hunt encourages citizens to become involved, however it's primary focus is to encourage "hunters" to donate to the scholarship fund.
"More than 2,000 official treasure hunt clue books have been sent to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Members of Congress of both parties are asking their constituents to play the national American history treasure hunt as a way to thank the troops," said Robert Okun, Kelsi's and Rachel's dad.
The contest runs until Labor Day, Sept. 4, and gives those that play many opportunities to win a variety of prizes, including mountain bikes, entertainment centers, and vacations to many destinations. The grand prize includes an all-expense-paid trip for four to Washington D.C., including special tours of the executive, judicial and legislative branches and a Nationals baseball game, along with three nights of accommodations in the Presidential Suite of the historic Willard Inter-Continental Hotel. During their stay, winners also will collect clues that will lead them to a buried treasure chest full of jewels and jewelry, "pirate booty," gems representing all 50 states, and centuries-old coins created, according to event organizers.
"We have been amazed at how many people have stepped up and volunteered to help by contributing prizes, services or making donations," Mike Hacker, a spokesman for ThanksUSA, said. "It shows that people really do appreciate our military families. We hope people throughout the country will catch the spirit of Rachel and Kelsi and thank the troops by playing the treasure hunt and contributing to the scholarship fund."
The scholarship deadline for this year closed May 30, with about 4,000 applicants in the running. The group's Web site has started registering those who wish to apply for the 2007 scholarships and has already received 500 entries. ThanksUSA intends to award 1,000 scholarships in amounts of $1,000 to $5,000 each.
"We have a single goal, and that is to give out as many scholarships to the spouses and children of active-duty military as we can possibly give out," Hacker said. "The treasure hunt is a fun way for people to get to know us and to encourage them to support our cause financially."
The program has gained national media attention. The girls hope to create more awareness throughout the summer months, giving families and communities the opportunity to bond over America's past and present.
"ThanksUSA would like to encourage participation at events across the country. We also hope that the vast military network of families will promote the project so that more money can be raised for the scholarship fund," Hacker said. "ThanksUSA is also looking for other opportunities to raise awareness about the treasure hunt in communities across the country over the summer."
As the hunt continues, it receives responses daily from troops serving over seas. Many have said they find it a great way to connect with their families.
"I'm gone 250 days out of the year and only have phone and e-mail most of the time with the family," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Foreman, a military personnel specialist. "This really gave us a sense that we were closer and working on something greater than just marking time when we could get back together."
ThanksUSA is about spreading support for the military community and getting citizens involved, Hacker said. He said that Kelsi, Rachel and numerous volunteers of the organization want to stress the importance of showing servicemembers that people care. The treasure hunt and the scholarships are a way to give back to the men and women in uniform and to spread patriotism.
"The treasure hunt is about American values, culture and history. These are the things our soldiers are defending," Hacker said. "We all have an obligation to support those who defend us and to let them know we care about the job they are doing for us all."