MAY 2023

About five months ago, I was chatting with my son’s Kindergarten teacher, Michelle Redabaugh, after dropping him off in his classroom. Before heading off to my classroom on the other side of campus at the same school, and amidst the hustle and bustle that is a morning with five and six-year-olds, Michelle told me of the great work that a local Veteran’s nonprofit was doing in Haymarket, VA. I listened intently as she told me of “Serve Our Willing Warriors,” a retreat center that provided cost-free lodging for recovering veterans, many of whom were undergoing treatment at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. She said she knew the founders of Willing Warriors and wanted to introduce me to their staff as she was familiar with my work with Veterans and students through The 9:57 Project. We parted ways and agreed that we should pay them a visit together sometime.

That night, I sat down on my couch and turned on the Washington Capitals game. Almost immediately, I saw the name “Serve Our Willing Warriors” (SOWW) flash across the screen. I squinted and tried to remember the name of the group that Michelle had mentioned earlier that morning as Joe Benanati and Craig Laughlin noted that for each goal scored, Burke & Herbert Bank would be donating $100 to this nonprofit as a part of their “Scores for Veterans” program. Sure enough, it was the same group! Wow! What were the chances? I hit the rewind button, took a picture of the TV, and sent off a text to my fellow co-founder John Hamilton with the image telling him I thought something might be in the works. John and I always appreciate a serendipitous moment, and I can assure you that over the years of working on The 9:57 Project, we've had more than our fair share.

A month or two went by before Michelle and I made arrangements to see the retreat center. As we toured the two homes at the Warrior Retreat at Bull Run with Executive Director Sarah Ford, I was amazed by the incredible love and care that poured out of that place for our nation’s service members. From handwritten notes waiting on the beds to painted rocks on a nature trail to high-end meals from visiting military chefs from the Presidential Food Service at the White House (and their own in-house top chef and podcast aficionado, Larry Ziliox) to a menu of options for local events, I developed a great admiration for their work in the space of just 30 minutes.

Click here to learn more about Serve Our Willing Warriors

After the tour, I sat down with Sarah and gave a brief overview of The 9:57 Project and some of our hopes for the future, including new programming that expanded our work from the history classroom to extracurricular activities such as leadership retreats, summer programs, and more. And it seemed that the more I shared, the more I realized that a partnership with Willing Warriors could be mutually beneficial and lead to some incredible experiences for students and Veterans. And, much to my pleasure, Sarah felt exactly the same way.

Well, to say something "might be in the works" turned out to be quite an understatement. As I sit here five months later, The 9:57 Project and Willing Warriors have formed a partnership that is very exciting. We have already teamed up to produce a one-day “Resilience Retreat” where fourteen students from Wakefield School traveled to the Warrior Retreat at Bull Run (SOWW's flagship location) to hear from 9:57 Project volunteer SFC (Ret.) Tim Huggins as he led a training on building the capacity for resilience. Tim’s experience studying resilience at the University of Pennsylvania and leading workshops for many types of groups was put into practice, leaving an indelible mark on all who participated.

Following the Resilience Retreat, students helped out around the center by painting rocks for children of service members who will visit in the future, and served a visiting Veteran by interviewing him, cataloging his story for the Library of Congress as a part of our Operation C.R.E.ST. program. We are honored to have been hosted by Willing Warriors, and we look forward to future efforts.

One such future effort is the 2023 Summer Leadership Challenge. This unique, immersive experience for high school students will run from July 31 - August 4 at the Warrior Retreat at Bull Run, and will feature Veteran-led workshops on leadership, a trip to the Flight 93 National Memorial, and a student-designed servant-leadership challenge that students will put into action in the following calendar year.

Applications will close soon, so please share with anyone that may be interested!

In speaking of the partnership, Sarah wrote, "Willing Warriors is thrilled to partner with The 9:57 Project to bring resiliency training and impactful seminars to youth in our region. We share a common passion and vision of engaging Veterans to shape the leaders of tomorrow. The experience, sacrifice and patriotic commitment of Veterans not only informs but inspires us all."

We could not agree more. The beautiful setting of the Warrior Retreat at Bull Run provides the perfect location for unique educational experiences that bring Veterans and young people together. We are excited about new possibilities that will help us further our mission while also having the opportunity to support a first-class organization that makes a lasting positive impact on our nation's Veteran community. We are honored to partner with Serve Our Willing Warriors.

Peter Findler

Header image: Ryan proudly shows his Resilience Retreat challenge coin, earned by participating in a one-day event hosted by Willing Warriors in Haymarket, VA.