What was your initial reasoning for getting involved in the EOD warrior foundation?
My husband was Army EOD, so it was personal to me. He did two combat deployments, one in Afghanistan, and the other covered Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. We have had friends who have been injured; my husband’s friend who he went to EOD school with, and we were very close to, was killed in 2010, and he is on the EOD memorial wall. It’s something that I was very connected to.
I’ve also been in the non-profit space as a volunteer and got my master’s in business so it was a perfect fit for me in terms of it being something I was incredibly passionate about and also something that leveraged my volunteer experience, my degree and past work experience in the professional world- bringing it all together into one thing that I could really get behind and see myself doing for the long term.
How long have you been working in this space?
I started in November of 2012, so this year will be six years. The merger was March 1st, 2013, so we hit the five-year mark of the EOD Warrior Foundation. I still wake up every day and pinch myself, because I can’t believe this is my reality and that I am lucky enough to do this work. It’s a privilege and an honor to serve this community and serve in this capacity. Not many people can say that six-years into the job they are excited to wake up every day and go to work.
As the executive director of the EOD Warrior Foundation, what are some of your biggest challenges that you face?
The two biggest challenges are sort of simultaneous. So in the non-profit space in general, fundraising is a challenge, and it becomes more difficult each and every day, because more and more non-profits are made and they are all deserving and worthy, and we are all ultimately working to raise funds out of the same pot of money. With that comes the challenge of making a highly focused effort to partner with other organizations, so that we’re not trying to recreate the wheel, so that we are not trying to hire more people and bring on more expense to our organization when we can partner with another non-profit that does work in that space and can serve our EOD warriors.
Fundraising is a huge part of it, but the other part of it, especially for the EOD community, is raising awareness. If I said to someone that I met on the street that I run the EOD Warrior Foundation, there’s a good chance that I’m going to have to start at the beginning and explain to them what EOD is. EOD warriors are embedded in every special operations unit, and every major mission that happens out there, you can bet that there is an EOD team involved, but you don’t hear about them. From an awareness perspective, they are the unsung heroes because they don’t get a lot of recognition and credit. So when you are trying to raise funds and awareness for them, you have to start at the beginning a lot of the times, and that puts us at a disadvantage.
Is that ever frustrating at points?
It is frustrating, but the frustration only gives us a stronger call to action; giving our team more of a purpose and more of a mission to work harder. It’s an opportunity to overcome a challenge. We have to look at it that way, because I don’t want our frustrations to hold us back from doing what really needs to be done.
From your perspective, what is the greatest reward from your position?
I could talk for an hour. The greatest reward is knowing that not only the foundation, but also the donors and the community- everyone who gets involved and gets behind our organization is making an incredible impact in the lives of deserving warriors and family and children every single day. Seeing that and hearing that from people when we, for example, give a scholarship for college where as long as they maintain a 3.0 GPA over four years, they are going to have a fixed amount of money for four consecutive years to put towards their education, whereas they might have had to come out of pocket or take out loans otherwise- that’s an incredible opportunity for us to make a difference in the life of someone. When we have a warrior who needs an adaptation on their home, or their vehicle, because they have been injured or are struggling with neck pain, or they are an amputee- and we can help make that a reality for them- there is nothing more motivating than knowing we are making a difference every single day.
Looking forward what are some goals you have for the foundation over the next few years?
Definitely continuing to adapt our programs, create new programs, and make sure that our programming stays relevant; ensure that what we are offering this community is something that they actually need. Several years ago, we had a program set up where we would take warriors when they were injured in theatre, and when they returned stateside we would meet them at the hospital and they would get a check for $3,000, a bag, which was a survival kit, if you will, to help get them through the first couple of weeks, along with an iPad and pay for their connectivity, because we know it is important for them to be able to stay connected to their brothers and sisters who are still in theatre. Likewise, we know that it is equally important for those that are still in theatre to be able to connect with their injured buddy and team member to let them know that they are okay. There was a time where we had an injured warrior coming home once a week. Well, we are so very lucky that now, we might only have one or two a year. While we would love for it to be none, that program wasn’t requiring as much of our resources anymore so we have adjusted and adapted our programs to serve going forward from a more proactive capacity. What can we do to serve those families who are struggling with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury?
In addition to the very physical wounds, we are also looking to better serve some of the other wounds of war, like growing our retreat and transcendental meditation programming and opportunities for our families. Also, our scholarship programming has grown exponentially. When I started a few years ago, it was less than $100,000 a year, and this year we awarded over $230,000 in scholarships to over 130 recipients. So continuing to adapt and knowing that there is a need for the scholarship program is definitely something we see when we look to the future.
From there, the possibilities are endless. Like I said, we partner with other organizations so we do as much as we can with as little as we can, so we don’t have to have a five million-dollar budget to offer what we hope is everything our EOD families need from our organization, but if we got a grant for three million dollars to spend next year, we would absolutely reach out to the community and look into what the additional needs were and take that forward.
Can you tell me a little more about your scholarship program?
We have four pillars of support: hope and wellness is one, which I mentioned is the retreats. Financial relief is the second, EOD memorial care which is maintaining the EOD memorial wall that ensures our fallen EOD Warriors are always honored and remembered, and then the scholarship or, education, program is the fourth pillar.
What is does is award dependents of EOD warriors, and they can be active duty, retired, or veterans- as long as they were in and served then their dependents are eligible, this includes a spouse, child, or grandchildren, who are eligible to apply for an EOD scholarship through the foundation. The scholarships range from $1000 to $5,000 in amount and the students must apply during our application period which launches right around Thanksgiving and closes in February. Then we have a committee which comes together and reviews all the applicants and awards the scholarships based on merit, so it’s not a guarantee that everyone will get a scholarship.
They apply, and then the committee selects the top applicants on a variety of qualifications like GPA, extra-curricular activities, letters of recommendation, volunteer experiences and life experiences. That scholarship will go for the following year. The recipients can go to two and four year colleges, and the scholarship is good for up to four years. It is only for undergraduate right now, although that is another area that we would consider expanding in the future, providing scholarships for graduate level programs, if we had additional resources. Once you get a scholarship, as long as you maintain a 3.0 GPA, you do not have to re-apply every year, you just have to re-upload your transcript and you are guaranteed that same scholarship amount every year through college.
Do you have a specifically powerful experience from your time at the foundation that you think really embodies what the EOD Warrior Foundation is all about?
We really have those experiences so often, and if you have seen our testimonials, every single one of them are stories that I can relate to, because we’ve been a part of that experience. I’ll give you one specific one that stuck with me. We had an EOD warrior, his wife, and their three boys, and they brought a home together. This young woman was beautiful and incredible and came on one of our retreats and I was privileged enough to go on this retreat and get to know her. On the retreats, our staff works hard at to being present and making sure we are connecting with our EOD families.
So in this situation, this young woman came on the retreat, and was very closed off. She didn’t really want to participate and so we kind of let it happen, and through the retreat she opened up slowly but surely and we started to connect. She was a photographer in her previous life and hadn’t picked up a camera in years. By the end of the retreat she was out there smiling and taking pictures and we learned that she had this experience where her and her husband had brought a house before he deployed, and their dream was always to fix it up. On his deployment he got injured, and he could no longer fix up a house, so they were living in a home that was rapidly deteriorating around them, because they purchased it knowing it needed to be repaired.
I came back from the retreat knowing that story, and we started doing some research into what kind of resources were out there and what we could do. Long story short, over the course of six-months, we were able to get some contractors out there to fix up some basic things and the foundation could help cover those costs. And then we were able to realize and apply for a grant through the federal government that got them out from under the house and into a new home that was safe for their children.
If someone wanted to support what it is you are doing, what is the best way to do that?
Raising awareness and raising funds- and anyone can do that. Someone can host a small event in their community, and while it might seem small, if you share what EOD warriors do, and what the foundation is doing, with five people, and then they share with a few people as well, it would have a tremendous impact. We are very blessed that we have individuals who host fundraisers for us. Some of those fundraisers raise $500, and some raise $200,000, but it takes both ends of the spectrum to make it work and allow us to continue to go forward and do what we do.