I sit writing this article in the aftermath of multiple natural disasters—historic hurricanes and flooding in Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, fires raging in the northwest U.S. and earthquakes abroad. The devastation is shocking in both its magnitude and its persistence. Yet what amazes me most is not the destruction, but the overwhelming sense of spirit in humanity, the coming together of neighbors and strangers alike to help one another, and the outpouring of leadership from everyday citizens.
Time and again, what proves most poignant to me is the value of these human connections. Chaos and devastation have a unique way of shining a spotlight on humanity’s capacity for love and compassion and, as inconceivable as it may sound, revealing beauty in the suffering.
This isn’t the first time I’ve marveled at the value of human connection. At The Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation, we make it our daily work to uncover pockets of goodness where people and organizations come to the aid of those who need it most. We make investments, in the form of grants, to organizations striving to improve the lives of our nation’s critically injured veterans and improve outcomes for individuals and families living in poverty.
Now in its sixth year, The Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation has awarded more than $140 million in grants. Of that amount, our largest investment in a single organization is the $42 million awarded to Semper Fi Fund. The partnership started in 2012 with a conversation on the golf course. Bob and Renee Parsons were told by a friend (and, like Mr. Parsons, a Vietnam Marine veteran) that Semper Fi Fund was doing great work. After careful research, the couple decided to grant $1 million to the organization, which was the start of a long-standing relationship.
We’ve seen how hope and simple human connections can change lives.
Semper Fi Fund is a veteran-serving organization which comes to the rescue, not in natural disasters like those of recent months, but in a national disaster felt every day—the disaster suffered by American military veterans who are committing suicide at the average rate of 20 per day.
Semper Fi Fund’s mission is to rebuild the lives of our nation’s most severely wounded and critically ill servicemen and women who suffer from the personal devastations and disasters of war. Initially founded as a Marine-focused organization, the Fund now assists active military and post-9/11 veterans from all branches of the military.
The beneficiaries of Semper Fi Fund’s support include single, double and triple amputees, men and women gripped with debilitating post-traumatic stress, those with severe traumatic brain injuries, and individuals blinded and burned. In many cases, their spouses or other caregivers have given up their own lives to find a ‘new normal,’ and their children have been impacted in ways we simply cannot quantify.
Rebuilding Lives After War
Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, more than 2.7 million American men and women have deployed to various war zones across the globe. Many now face a life of physical and psychological disability due to their injuries sustained in these wars zones. As of 2015 (latest data available), at least 970,000 veterans had an officially recognized disability attributed to their service in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. And the true count of our fellow Americans injured, sickened and impacted by war may be considerably higher when we consider undiagnosed mental health struggles, substance abuse, and other challenges including reintegrating into society and joblessness.
Since 2004, Semper Fi Fund has been quietly helping many of these individuals rebuild their lives. It has offered some $156 million in assistance to severely wounded and critically ill servicemen and women, and their families, often filling the gaps where government, the military, or the Department of Veterans Affairs fall short. Help comes in many forms within the following areas:
Providing a Human Connection
While Semper Fi Fund’s programs have evolved as it continually adapts to veterans’ changing needs, a constant and common thread is the central importance of a human connection.
The Fund’s relationship with a service member begins at the hospital bedside, when a case manager initially connects with family members and works to assist with their immediate needs. Embedded in the philosophy of human connection, they know that having loved ones at the hospital for the first moment of regained consciousness makes a meaningful impact in the healing process.
After a veteran is released from the hospital, Semper Fi Fund continues to foster this human connection by strengthening its direct relationship with the service member. At times, Semper Fi Fund and its case managers serve as a literal lifeline along the journey of recovery and healing—not just physically, but emotionally and financially.
The Fund’s approach is exemplified by the way it has supported Carlos, a Marine and combat engineer whose legs were severed in November 2010 when he stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED) only 200 meters from his base. After just two months in Afghanistan, Carlos’ life was changed forever, as was his family’s. Semper Fi Fund responded immediately. The Fund first made sure that Carlos’ immediate family was at his bedside, to support him in his recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. After his release from the hospital, the Fund assisted Carlos with a grant to help purchase a new vehicle and adapt it to his use so that he could maintain his independence.
Today, the Fund continues to support Carlos and his wife, Jacki, who is also his caregiver. Jacki participates in Semper Fi Fund’s Caregiver Support Program which provides weekend retreats, access to psychiatrists who educate caregivers on PTSD, and, just as important, connections to other caregivers who become a much-needed support group.
The team at Semper Fi Fund understands that the needs of each veteran, like Carlos, are unique. Semper Fi Fund also recognizes that it is essential to help every veteran and his or her family forge strong connections through the programs and services it offers, whether they are connections to family, to peers, or to the community. The Fund’s approach is guided by these principles.
Staying Rooted. Semper Fi Fund started out as the small, grassroots idea of a few Marine wives, including the organization’s current president and executive director, Karen Guenther. At that time, Guenther was a pediatric intensive care nurse and Marine wife and was keenly aware of the suffering felt by families at the military base around her. She and a few friends decided to take up donations to help Marine families in need. Thirteen years later, Semper Fi Fund is a $30 million annual operation and still leads with the same heart and grassroots approach that got them started. There are no fancy offices, no inflated salaries, no grand galas, and — perhaps most important to those they serve — no red tape. Semper Fi Fund moves swiftly to help a wounded service member and his or her family in a crisis.
Staying Relevant. Semper Fi Fund has a practice and priority of hiring military veterans and their spouses, particularly for its front-line staff. The case managers who work directly with the injured are spouses of active military or veterans, and most of them were long-time volunteers for the organization before they were ever offered a paycheck. Having already walked a mile in those boots gives the Semper Fi Fund staff a unique insight into the needs and challenges of those they serve.
Staying Connected. Semper Fi Fund has pledged a lifetime of support to injured veterans. They don’t view their assistance as transactional; they view their human connection as transformative. A service member or veteran may have multiple needs over a span of many years. The Fund has pledged to be there. They believe that, for as much as our heroes have sacrificed, they deserve the best care and support available in their hour of need.
Carlos will tell you that his recovery hasn’t been easy, but he is forging ahead and he has a plan. Inspired by the support of Semper Fi Fund and others who have helped him, he plans to do the same. He is currently enrolled in school with a goal to attain his master’s degree in social work.
Carlos served our country. Now he wants to serve others in need, in his own way, through human connection.
At The Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation we recognize that the challenges faced by each individual may be complicated and that the world’s social issues are indeed vast; but through it all, the one thing we do remains simple. We deal in hope. Through the work of Semper Fi Fund, we’ve seen hope and human connection change lives. We invite you to make a human connection of your own.
Laura Mitchell is executive director of The Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation.