In the heart of Georgia is a place you’d never think to find. It’s a small get away hidden from the world, but only about a 30-40 minute drive from Fort Benning, GA. In this little piece of paradise, totaling over 40+ acres, veterans, active duty military and their families come from all over to ride horses and take horse riding lessons, host birthday parties and events, listen to music, hang out in the community recreation room, walk the trails, fish and relax- and it’s all completely free. Yes that’s right, 100% free, all thanks to the man who runs it retired CSM Samuel Rhodes.
Sam Rhodes first founded the Wounded Warrior Horsemanship Program (based in Fort Benning, GA) in 2008 and then converted it to the non-profit organization Warrior Outreach in 2012 by turning his own home and land into the base for the operation. Why did he do this? For Sam, or Sgt. Major as the soldiers and family members who know him affectionately refer to him as, it was all about helping others and in some small way help himself as well. After 29 years of service to the United States Army, Sam understood and was deeply affected by the struggles that service members and their families face day in and day out because of his own experiences with PTSD, suicide and depression. He found peace in equine assisted therapy, finding that working with the horses helped to keep his mind occupied on other more calming things and allowed him to re-connect with the world around him.
I met Sam on a warm Saturday morning after hearing about Warrior Outreach through an event for my husbands unit. It amazed me that I had never heard of this facility and we have lived here at Fort Benning for almost four years now. What I thought would start out as an interview to tell my military community about local resources available to them quickly turned into something so much more. We talked for almost two hours as Sam showed me his property, the buildings and introduced me to some of his volunteers. He told me about his hopes and dreams for Warrior Outreach, the past goals they had accomplished and how much more they desired to do for 2017. To say it blew my mind would be an understatement.
Here’s just some of the goals that Sam, who works a full-time job as the Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness Program Manager for the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, GA, and his team of volunteers for Warrior Outreach have accomplished for 2016.
- Repaired 33 homes for Veterans
- Fed 3873 needy persons/families
- Provided groceries for 1597 families in need
- Provided Equine access for 2313 families/veterans
- Provided event tickets (Nascar, Braves Games, Concerts etc.) 3905
It’s no wonder that Sam says nearly all of his extra income goes towards supporting Warrior Outreach. In-fact, no one who volunteers or works for the foundation takes a salary and Sam estimates that nearly 97% of their total revenue goes right back into the events, tickets, and services they provide for veterans and their families. Their biggest cost they say is not in the events, food, or even the utilities on the ranch. It’s in the horses- providing them with feed, hay and care. The reward, however, in providing these services is infinitely more valuable to Sam, his wife Cathy and those that volunteer their time to run the events.
As Sam drove my children (who he immediately started to spoil with treats, donuts and promises of ponies rides in the future) and myself around the property, he began to point out the future projects the foundation is working to fund. He’s adding on a wide deck to the community center complete with a wheelchair ramp for disabled veterans. He’s completing miles of walking and riding trails where veterans will be able to come and have quiet times of reflection at stations honoring their particular time of service. I can see his vision begin to unfold before me as he quietly talks and points out a building here and there that’s been donated by a local company or organization. Most of the local donations, he states, don’t come in the form of money or checks. Most often it’s a building that they help build, or a service they provide such as the water, drinks and food in the fully stocked community center. His pride and joy? The large pavilion donated by his hometown of Ringgold, GA under which they recently hosted Operation Song, an event where award winning song-writers and musicians come from Nashville, TN to help veterans struggling with PTSD write about and share their experiences.
As I walked the grounds and talked with Sam, he had me sign his visitors log just as he does every guest who steps foot on the premises and he gave me a notebook, well worn and filled with comments and letters from past visitors. He says whenever he gets discouraged he opens the book and reads what the visitors wrote, how the foundation helped them in some way or sometimes it’s just a simple thank you for the services they provide. One entry, dated 12/15/15 states, “As in the infantry I experienced a family like I’ve never known. After discharged I fell into a dark world affecting those around me. The Warrior Outreach SAVED my life. I feel apart of something again, not an outcast, the feeling of belonging and knowing I don’t have to suffer alone. Thank you for showing me how to be happy again.”
Warrior Outreach and it’s founder Sam Rhodes, is an organization like I’ve never encountered before. When we left, my arms were piled with donuts and treats for the kids, pamphlets, CD’s from Operation Song, books that Sam has written, even my own T-shirt and a promise that he’d have his riding instructor call me to set up a schedule for the kids pony rides. Yet, it wasn’t the gifts or treats or even the facility that affected me the most- it was Sam. It was how despite his own personal struggles and issues, he found a way to reach outside of himself and give back to a community he had already served for so long.
I discovered a jewel in the middle of the Georgia pines named Sam Rhodes and Warrior Outreach. It was an experience I’ll never forget.
If you’d like to learn more about Sam, Warrior Outreach, or how you can donate to the foundation- please visit http://www.warrioroutreach.org and if you live in or around the Fort Benning, GA area please check them out. They’d love to show you and your military family a good time!
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