Operation Heroes Connect Provide Support For At-Risk Teens
- Stephen Ruiz
Deja Adams met Tee Hanible at a vulnerable time in her life. Adams, then 16 years old, and her family were living in a homeless shelter in Virginia. Hanible, a retired Marine gunnery sergeant, showed up one day as the founder and CEO of Operation Heroes Connect, which pairs active-duty military members and veterans with at-risk youth.
They laughed, joked, and bonded, especially over their shared love of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
“Ever since that, we were real close,’’ said Adams, 22. “A bag of chips got me into the organization, basically.’’
In many ways, Operation Heroes Connect is Hanible’s pride and joy. Since she started the nonprofit organization in 2012, the services that it provides in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and northern Virginia have grown. Its staff and volunteers coordinate an annual summer camp for about 100 youths ages 8–17. (The camp was canceled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Operation Heroes Connect has provided meals for the homeless, organized school supply drives, and sponsored an Adopt A Family program for the holidays.
“Our kids have been — I guess you could say — subjected to all kinds of different backgrounds,’’ said Hanible, who estimates Operation Heroes Connect has impacted more than 1,000 youths. “We’ve had kids where both parents were incarcerated. We’ve had kids where one parent was incarcerated. We had kids who had a bum way and just going through this life of challenges. We try to be that listening ear for them.’’
A product of the foster-care system, Hanible was adopted by a woman who took in more than 40 other children in search of a home. Her background taught her about sacrifice and the importance of helping others in need, especially the young. The Chicago native tried to volunteer while she was stationed in Quantico, Virginia, but the waiting lists for volunteers at charities that Hanible considered were full, leaving Hanible with nowhere to turn.
Well, not exactly.
“I ended up sitting up one night and doing Facebook posts [about], ‘What if I started my own nonprofit?’’’ Hanible said. “That received such a welcomed response that that’s what I decided to do.’’
Brenda Luz Johnson, who served in the Air Force from 1999–2019, has been with Operation Heroes Connect for four years. She directs the organization’s mentorship and girls camp programs.
Johnson, who rose to the rank of master sergeant, has been inspired by watching youths discover life skills, such as learning to tie a tie and basic hygiene and competing in team-building activities. She recalled a particular project in which the youths constructed boats out of cardboard and competed to see which one would float the longest in a nearby pond.
The mentors at Operation Heroes Connect don’t shy away from serious topics, either. One time, the youths gave each other advice on a range of subjects, including bullying.
“It was pretty powerful to see that,’’ Johnson said.
Hanible began Operation Heroes Connect, which she hopes to grow nationally, while on active duty. She retired from the Marines in 2016.
“I felt like I was incomplete after I came back from deployment,’’ Hanible said. “When you’re on deployment, every hour is accounted for. When you’re back, you find that you have a lot of empty space. … You want to fill that space with positivity, so for veterans and [active-duty personnel], it gives that sense of still giving back after the uniform.’’
Adams is thankful for the woman she calls Miss Tee.
She was introduced to Operation Heroes Connect as a mentee six years ago and now is a volunteer.
“I’m a mentor,’’ Adams said. “I’m a personal assistant. I do it all.
“I don’t think I would have given up [if she had not met Hanible], but I would have been more on the verge of … In other words, yes. Yes, I do.’’
For more information, visit Operation Heroes Connect at OperationHeroesConnect.org.