The IHRSA Family Assists America’s Vets

Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 8.04.35 PMOriginally published in Club Business International | November 2014 | View the original article online

On July 4, 2013, 500 miniature American flags waved in the wind along a stretch of Ochsner Boulevard, in Covington, Louisiana, as part of the Stone Creek Club and Spa’s Stars and Stripes Salute to American veterans. It was a sight to behold!

Each flag was donated by a Stone Creek member or a Covington resident, and was tied with a yellow ribbon bearing the name of a specific veteran or a general tribute.

And, for one onlooker, the scene was especially meaningful.

Iraq-war veteran Cpl. Matthew Cole, 33, was on his second tour in Iraq when he and another Marine were attacked by insurgent mortar fire. During the attack, a piece of shrapnel pierced Cole’s back, injuring one lung and his spinal cord, paralyzing him from the chest down.

“It means a lot that the club did that,” says Cole, a Covington resident and Stone Creek member “They’re the only health club in the area that’s done anything of the sort, and it speaks volumes about them.”

The flag display was part of Stone Creek’s “Support Our Soldiers” campaign to raise money and awareness for wounded U.S. military veterans. The club sold the flags for $25 apiece, and also staged a weekend of events, including a military-style workout. Participants paid $20 for two hours of activity, consisting of four 30-minute classes–Spinning, Bootcamp, BodyPump, and BodyCombat.

The proceeds went to the Wounded Warrior Project, a non-profit organization that helps injured military veterans, such as Cole, readjust to civilian life, and to Support Our War Heroes, a similar, local veteran’s group.

In just over one month, Stone Creek raised $15,000. The fundraising began on June 1, and concluded on the weekend of July 6-7.

“It was one of the most moving, most talked about, and inspiring fundraisers we’ve ever done,” says Larry Conner, Stone Creek’s general manager and the catalyst for the project. “It’s not only a good cause, but it also moves people.”

Therein lies the key to successfully helping veterans: community involvement.

The cost of heroism

IHRSA member clubs such as Stone Creek, as well as ClubSport, based in Pleasanton, California, and YogaFit, an IHRSA associate member based in Los Angeles, have tapped into the strength of exercise and clubs. They’re wielding that power to give something back to the servicemen and women who’ve fought so bravely to protect our nation.

These and other groups are part of a movement that’s spreading quickly through our industry. More clubs are raising funds and offering programs tailored to America’s veterans than ever before, and there’s clearly a need.

The WWP’s Website reports that more than 48,000 servicemen and women have been physically injured in recent conflicts, and an estimated 400,000 service members live with the invisible wounds of war, including combat-related stress, major depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

According to the New York Times, for every soldier killed on the battlefield, about 25 veterans are dying by their own hands. More than 6,500 take their own lives every year–more than all of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the American Journal of Public Health estimates that being a veteran doubles one’s risk of suicide, and for those ages 17-24, quadruples it.

The Stars and Stripes Salute

Enlightening people about the plight of these veterans is exactly what Conner had in mind when he created the Stars and Stripes Salute. After listening to keynote speaker Bert Jacobs, the cofounder of Life is good, speak at IHRSA 2013 in Las Vegas, Conner realized that high visibility was the key to getting entire community involved.

“Jacobs told a story about a fundraiser that Life is good had staged in a pumpkin patch. Everyone in the community got to see it, which is why it was so successful,” Conner recalls.

With his mental wheels sent spinning by Jacobs’ speech, Conner worked with others at Stone Creek to come up with the Salute.

“What was different about this event was that it benefited so many people–not just our warrior heroes, but everyone who was involved with, experienced, or heard about it!” Conner explains. He notes that the flag display prompted a feature article in the local paper, and “not just the press release we sent out about it.”

Stone Creek is a large facility–it encompasses 53,000 square feet, and houses 15 tennis courts, a swimming pool, a basketball court, a full-service cafe, and a day spa. But Conner attests that any sized club–from an independent mom-and-pop to a large chain–can make use of this fundraising concept.

Conner purchased the American-made flags with tribute ribbons for $3 a piece, and sold $500 sponsorships for the July 4th weekend events. The money for the flags was included in his annual marketing budget.

“It’s not very expensive, and there’s very little prep work involved,” he observes. “Even clubs located in office buildings can participate. The flags could be displayed in their buildings’ lobbies or along the outside of the properties.”

The success of the Stars and Stripes Salute has inspired Stone Creek to make it an annual event. One of the changes they’ve made is to move it from July 4th to Veteran’s Day, which falls on a Tuesday, November 11. And this year, Connor also is giving people two options: one flag for $25, or two flags for $35, with the second flag for the buyer to fly at their home or business.

“I’d like to see every club in the country do this for Veteran’s Day,” Connor encourages. “It would benefit a great cause, and enhance our clubs’ status as community players.”

The ClubSport and Claremont campaigns

A number of other IHRSA-member clubs also have signed up to support our troops. ClubSport, which has facilities in California, Nevada, and Oregon, was inspired to get involved with the WWP, and for reasons similar to those of Stone Creek. “We donate a lot of money to breast cancer research, but wanted a new cause that would have a big impact,” notes Christina Dort, ClubSport’s director of marketing.

It began fundraising last May, kicking off with a Memorial Day barbecue and t-shirt sales at each of their locations (with the t-shirts provided by the WWP), and following up with class events, a bike-a-thon, and push-up challenge.

The response from members was tremendous, according to Dort. “We have clubs in communities with a large number of veterans, so it was a big hit with our members.”

It was also a big hit numbers-wise. Between May and July, ClubSport raised more than $50,00 for the WWP. “It was our first time raising money for this cause, and the outcome was outstanding.”

The Claremont Club in Claremont, California, is another business that’s signed up to join the Stone Creek Salute. Mike Alpert, the president and CEO of the Claremont Club says he was inspired to take part after a Rex Roundtable meeting with Conner. “We’ve just started on our own version of the Salute,” he says, “but I can tell you, it’s really easy.”

YogaFit for Warriors

Sometimes, however, offering aid to those who need it isn’t so easy.

“There’s a stigma around soldiers asking for help, and talking about the things that upset them, so many don’t receive the assistance they require,” explains Lt. Col. Shaye Molendyke, a YogaFit trainer and founder of YogaFit for Warriors. This 100-hour program teaches yoga instructors the skills and techniques they need to help their students heal from PTSD and traumatic brain injury. “People don’t have to come in and talk about their feelings. They don’t have to say anything,” she says. “They come in and do yoga–that can be just as effective.”

According to Molendyke, when trauma occurs, it affects the part of the brain associated with feeling, sometimes muting the impact of words and verbalization. “Practicing yoga helps relieve the body of troubling emotions, pervasive thought patterns, chronic somatic tension, and hypervigilance,” she points out.

Workshops are hosted on an average of 20 times a year in cities and on military bases across the U.S. In September, YogaFit held a free, two-day training workshop at the Ft. Hood Army Post, in Killeen, Texas. “The goal of the workshop was to help heal military personnel suffering from PTSD in the wake of the 2009 and 2014 Ft. Hood shootings,” YogaFit explained in a press release.

Molendyke, who is also a mental health professional, created the program after counseling soldiers in the aftermath of 9/11, and after becoming frustrated at the apparent inability of either cognitive-behavioral therapy or “talk therapy” to help her patients. “Words weren’t reaching them,” she recalls. Molendyke was practicing yoga at the time, and suspected many soldiers also could benefit from it, but was told to stick with traditional therapeutic methods.

“Several years later, after the healing benefits of yoga were better understood, I felt it was good time to develop the program.”

Molendyke’s instincts were right, and, today, she’s very hopeful.

The response to YogaFit for Warriors has been nothing short of remarkable, she says. “We’ve been featured all over the place, in a number of big-name military publications, and people are really responding well to the program. It’s also generated a lot of community support–another critical factor in treating veteran’s suffering from trauma.”