CONCORD — Pollyanna Neely has helped veterans all over the region transition to civilian life. Now she will be recognized nationwide for her efforts.
Neely, a resident of Concord, was selected as one of 30 people to grace the front of Lay’s Smiles bags, part of a promotion in which the company honors “ordinary” people doing extraordinary things.
“Across stores and within households, Lay’s has the power to reach millions of Americans every day,” said Sadira Furlow, vice president of marketing for Frito-Lay North America, in a news release. “We already know that what’s inside the bag brings joy, but turning the Lay’s bag into a canvas to multiply that happiness factor is what makes the Smiles program so special.”
Neely is the board chairwoman of Active Veterans With Answers, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit started in 2016 in China Grove that provides information services and guidance for veterans, their family members, caregivers and survivors while helping them access benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs and its subsidiaries.
A retired member of the Navy with more than 25 years of active military service, Neely and the group's vice chair and co-founder, Dionne Archibald, found they were not the only ones in their peer group who struggled with navigating the transition from military to civilian life, so they decided to do what they could to help.
What has resulted is an extensive network of seminars, briefings and conferences for veterans to successfully make a transition.
Neely was nominated to be on Lay’s Smiles bags but said she has no idea who nominated her. But learning that she would be featured on Lay's bags across the nation as well as receive a donation to her organization was an unexpected thrill.
“I didn’t believe it. You receive notification, and you just think, ‘Oh, more spam mail,’” she said with a laugh.
“It’s just an exciting time. It’s great for Operation Smile, who we’re really doing it for, and the opportunity to recognize not only my organization, but the many other organizations, all 30 of us that are just doing great things.”
Operation Smile is a nonprofit medical service organization founded in 1982 by Dr. William P. Magee Jr. and his wife, Kathy Magee.
The organization provides world-class cleft care in more than 30 countries, supported by more than 6,000 volunteers from 60 countries. Children across the world have been able to receive safe surgery to treat cleft palates because of Operation Smile.
Lay’s is committing $1 million to Operation Smile as part of the Lay’s Smiles bags that will be featured across the nation.
Neely will be featured on Lay’s Limon, Lay’s Fried Pickles with Ranch, and — very fittingly considering her Navy background — Lay’s Sea Salt & Pepper.
She said she was entertained by that one.
“Sea Salt & Pepper? Is that because I’m a sailor? Why is it not the original?” Neely joked. “But it didn’t matter to any of us. The flavors didn’t matter, just the opportunity to be a part of something that is so phenomenal for the world because Operation Smile is that big.
“And then to impact our nation with our smile all over the nation is extraordinary.”
This is the third year Lay’s has done the Smiles bags, but this time the program has been made unique by the outbreak of COVID-19.
Normally Lay’s would fly all 30 honorees to Dallas, where they would experience a VIP photo and video shoot, but the pandemic forced the event's cancellation.
Still, it gave all the individuals a unique opportunity.
“We knew we couldn’t let a canceled photo shoot keep Lay’s from sharing these inspiring stories with the world,” Furlow said.
The Smilers had to take all their own photos to be featured on the bags, so images captured by family and friends will be the ones gracing bags across the nation.
It was an entertaining experience for Neely, who said she can’t even remember how many photos were taken to get the right one, but she is sure her husband won’t want to see a camera for at least a couple of months after being recruited for the project.
“We took so many pictures in this house,” she said. “The lighting here, the angle (here), oh, my gosh. I don’t think my husband wants to take another picture of me for a while.”
That extra effort is worth it, though, for the exposure that Active Veterans With Answers will receive as part of the program. It will be worth it for each organization and person featured on Lay’s Smiles bags.
The bags will be in grocery store aisles across the country with unique QR codes people can scan to learn more about each person and organization’s story.
Having a chance to give even more aid to those she helps is what truly excites Neely.
“It’s just so important to have the exposure, so they know they can look and find someone that’s willing to help them, because they’re not alone,” she said. “That’s what we have to remember, is we’re never alone, no matter what it is that someone needs, there’s someone out there to help them, because we’re all together.
“That’s how big this opportunity is for me, and I know it’s probably the same for the other Smilers as well. For people to know that we’re here, and we’re here for them.”
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