Culture November 8th, 2017

Befriending A Soldier Named Gummy Bear

As a Zappos phone representative, I never know what the next call will bring.

On the morning of July 23, something incredible occurred, and it would leave an indelible mark on my life.

It was 4:30 a.m. when I responded to a LiveChat ping with my typical introduction: "Thank you for chatting it up with Zappos! My name is Kelli, and I’m the resident teddy bear artist …"

My early morning flair had been met with a very friendly Tommy on the other end.

Tommy, a first-time customer, had chatted in to exchange his Salomon Speedcross 4s. After a few minutes of chitchat, he went on to tell me how vital having reliable shoes were in his line of work and how the other soldiers at the base recommended them.

My ears perked up. Soldiers? Where!?! Tell me more!

A career military man, Tommy was contacting me from a world away. Now on his fifth tour, I was told he and his battalion are serving in one of the most remote parts of Afghanistan. As a huge supporter of the military and an Air Force brat myself, I was intrigued to learn more.

For nearly two hours we exchanged stories and touched upon a wide range of topics. Subjects varied from the pristine beaches of El Salvador and zip lining in Costa Rica to using spears to kill snakes in the jungle. Family, politics and teddy bears (serendipitously enough), also made its way back into the conversation.

It was then when Tommy let me in on a secret. He told me the other soldiers in his unit had nicknamed him gummy bear, which stemmed from his adoration for the cute, fuzzy variety. At that moment I knew our connection would grow even more profound.

Grinning ear to ear, I told Tommy one of my most beloved hobbies is to make soft-sculpture teddy bears. I’ve been doing so for two decades, having freelanced for QVC and Annette Funicello. By this point, I found myself in the middle of one of the best conversations I’ve had in my 30 years of customer service.

Our chat eventually ended, and although I was able to WOW Tommy that day with a simple shoe exchange, my heart told me to do more.

Thus, I decided to send him a care package, and in it I included a Zappos culture book, Rice Krispies treats, a five-pound gummy bear and a 12-inch, hand-stitched teddy bear that I aptly named Tommy.

Two weeks later Tommy sent me a photo of himself and a sweet message. The connection was sealed. I had made a new friend. But it was seven days after that, however, when I received an unexpected surprise.

Tommy’s base commander sent an unbelievable thank you letter to me on official U.S. Department of Defense letterhead. Colonel Martin Schmidt proceeded to tell me that my package and words of encouragement contributed to the morale of the unit and that people like myself keep military personnel motivated and proud to serve our great country. Furthermore, he was appreciative of Zappos’ hiring practices and our strategic focus on supporting our customers.

And with that, my eyes welled with tears, and my world was made.

As part of Zappos’ core values, employees are encouraged to pursue their passions and to WOW our customers. This incredible connection was the perfect start to a project that I not so creatively named “The Tommy Project.” For my team and I, this was our way to do more to support our military heroes.

With the help of other Zapponians, we honored and celebrated our military with a surprise care package. Hundreds of items and treats were delivered to Tommy and Colonel Schmidt’s base in December 2016. Also included were dozens of handmade cards that’ll thank each soldier for their bravery and sacrifice.

It’s incredible to think that one amazing connection between two strangers has led to the power of many. You just never know who you’ll cross paths with on life's journey and how a simple gesture could have such an impact on others.

This Veterans Day, I’ll be thinking of Tommy, Colonel Schmidt and the thousands of others in uniform, former and current, who’ve given up so much for my freedom.

And although I’ll never be able to repay the debt, the least I can do is make them feel loved.