For this episode of Community Conversations, we spoke with Jeffrey Sapp, the Executive Director of Serve Our Willing Warriors (SOWW).
Q: What is Serve Our Willing Warriors and what does it do?
A: Serve Our Willing Warriors is a 501c3 charitable non-profit. We provide services to service members who are wounded, ill, injured or recovered from service-related injuries. And we normally do that via a series of programs that include Christmas gift giving, hospital visits, Thanksgiving dinners – fundraising events. Our key program, our flagship program, is the Warrior Retreat at Bull Run, which is on 37-acres in Haymarket, Virginia. It’s an 11,000-square foot home that we invite the warriors, and their caregivers, and family out to the retreat for a 6-day respite stay where they can relax, rejuvenate, and kind of reconnect with their support networks.
We do this because a lot of these soldiers are going through treatment which can last up to a year or two, and they’re in a very stressful environment, and being in a hospital on a day-to-day basis and not having a chance to be with your family and do the things that you want to do – or enjoy doing – it can be stressful. So, we give them an opportunity to come out, get away from the hospital environment – and at least for a week – think of nothing but focusing on themselves, their families, and enjoy themselves.
Q: How did Serve Our Willing Warriors get started?
A: Actually back in 2006, Park Valley Church in Haymarket, Virginia – it’s a non-denominational church – the Pastor Barry White put out a call to his flock to go out and do something for 40 days to spread Christmas cheer, I guess, is what it comes down to. Reach out beyond your community to do something else. Two of the folks in the group was John and Shirley Dominick, who eventually became our co-founders. They were in a group that decided to go to Walter Reed National Medical Hospital to visit the troops there and of cheer them up – bring a “taste of home” there. It was overwhelmingly successful. So, after the 40 day period – now this is 2006 we’re talking – after the 40 day period they continued doing outreach, they continued their Christmas celebration if you will, they continued going to the hospital.
Fast forward to 2012, when they decided they could probably do more by forming a non-profit, and that’s what they did. Serve Our Willing Warriors was set up in 2012. A year later, 2013, they found a property that we’re in now that would become the Warrior Retreat at Bull Run, and they bought it. It was dilapidated, it was built in 1977. They basically took it down to the studs and remodeled the interior of the house. It took two years to do that, it took $1.25 million in in-kind donations and financial support from contractors, hundreds and hundreds of volunteers, the community just poured out a great outpouring of support. So in 2015, they finished the renovation, they opened the doors, and we haven’t looked back since.
Q: Why is the work you do important?
A: The work we do is important for several reasons. Number one, people who serve and wear the uniform to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States deserve to be treated better after they take off the uniform, or if they’re injured, during the process of wearing the uniform. Number two, there’s a lot of folks that say, ‘Thank you for your service’. I believe that we should take ‘thank you for your service’ and turn it into a declaratory statement – or remove it from a declaratory statement into an action statement – so that we do something. A lot of people say, ‘Thank you, way to go’ and then they walk away. We don’t do that.
So we provide this opportunity for this one sliver of area, which is giving them the respite break, giving them a chance to relax and reengage, rejuvenate, and just enjoy themselves as a family, because they’re going to go right back to that hospital environment. We know that. But if we can give them a little bit of a break, we may be able to contribute to the holistic healing process, which helps them recover and get on with the lives that they want to live.
Q: Tell us about your upcoming fundraisers.
A: Our primary source of income is – well we have several sources of income – you have in-kind, donations, financial donations, in-kind donations. And also events, fundraising events. We have four primary fundraising events throughout the year. We have two that are coming up in the immediate future. First, on October 16, is our fifth annual golf tournament at Piedmont Golf Club. We welcome the public to come – we play as an individual or as a foursome. And all of the money is going to go directly to benefitting the warriors. That’s the golf tournament. The second key fundraiser that we have – oh, by the way, go back to Piedmont – 16 to 18 warriors are going to be playing in that tournament. There are people who have donated money so the warrior can play, which is absolutely great. So you have a chance to give something to the warrior, you have a chance to meet the warrior, interact with them and get to know them, which I think is really, really great.
The second primary fundraiser for us is our second annual gala. This year it’s on the fourth of November – it’s going to be at the MGM National Harbor. It’s going to be a wonderful event, and again there’s going to be several tables with warriors sitting at them that people have sponsored for them to be there. So, if you can come to either one or both of those, that would be great. And the funds go directly to support the warriors, and that’s the key for what we’re doing.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to say about Serve Our Willing Warriors? How can people get involved?
A: There are a number of ways you can get involved, but there’s something about the organization that I want people to be clear on. When the warrior comes, once we get them vetted through Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, or Fort Belvoir Community Hospital – those are the two primary medical centers we work with – we also work with veterans support organizations. The warrior will self-identify that they’d like to come to the retreat. The medical center vets them and says, ‘Yes, you can go at this point and time. There’s no surgery, no treatment – we can afford to do that’. And so once that’s done, we get flagged, we connect with the warrior, we have a Guest Services Coordinator work with them and fill out forms – more getting them set up, like you’re coming to an actual retreat.
When they come, they have the choice of over 65 activities that they can do – from helicopters, going to vineyards, the Hylton Center for Performing Arts, just tours. Or, they can just hang out at the house. It’s their call. Out of the 65 activities from the service providers, they only pick three or four. And those three or four, we set it up for them and they have a nice time with it. Three of the events I like to highlight, activities that I like to highlight that people enjoy: One, we have a visiting chef program where we bring in an executive chef from around the area – we have 47 – a visiting chef comes in and they cook a gourmet meal, whatever the warrior wants, he and his family wants – they cook it. They can have a chef’s table so they can sit there and watch it, they can cook with them, and have a great time. And I don’t think anyone’s ever turned that one down.
The second one we offer in the retreat is massage therapy, and it’s wonderful, it’s also therapeutic and very few people ever turn that one down. The other ones – helicopter riding, horse therapy, dog therapy – we have a whole lot of others that people really do enjoy. So it’s a good opportunity for them.
How can people help out? One, you can be a sponsor, an activity sponsor like one of the events we spoke about. Two, you can be a sponsor for a warrior to come stay for a week there – $2,000, we have it covered. Three, you can provide services as a contractor, or whatever services that you have to the retreat. We will give you the tax write off if it’s a monetary donation, or if its equivalent [in-kind] we’ll give you the proper documentation for it because it’s important, I know. But whatever you can bring to the table. Fourth, volunteering. We need volunteers. We need volunteers. We need volunteers – I can’t make it any clearer than that.
The community and volunteer support is absolutely essential to everything that we do. So if you’re thinking about it, don’t think any longer – give us a call, come on out – we will find something for you to do. From cutting the grass, to working with the warriors, to doing administration. If you’re a grant writer, I’d love to talk to you. If you’re a fundraiser, I’d like to talk to you. If you’re into marketing, I’d love to talk to you. Everything we do, the better we get at it, the better we get at what we do, the better service we provide the warriors.
We’re working on building three additional houses. We right now, we have our crosshairs on a $300,000 grant from a local corporation, well, national corporation, so we can start construction on the first house in 2018. We’re going to need to put furniture in that house, we’re going to need to put a kitchen in that house, so again, we’re looking for donations. So if you have future, if you have a kitchen, you have a desk, you have pillows, if you have anything that we can take, we will take that. We would be most appreciative for it.
Check back for the next episode of Community Conversations.