[caption id="attachment_525461" align="alignright" width="324"] Wisconsin Hero Outdoors opened its new headquarters in a former town of Delafield fire station.[/caption]
Wisconsin Hero Outdoors,a growing nonprofit that connects veterans to the outdoors, recently opened its new headquarters in a former Town of Delafield fire station.
The new HQ will serve as a central hub for the statewide organization, which hosts free outdoor outings for veterans and first responders, such as kayak fishing, ice fishing, golf and day hikes.
The organization has signed a three-year lease for the town’s former Fire Station No. 2 at W329 S690 Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive, which provides space to store its fleet of equipment and for its administrative offices. The group also plans to build an archery range on the 7-acre property, where veterans and first responders can do target shooting.
After quietly facilitating outdoor excursions over the past 5 years, the organization is now in growth mode, thanks to its new permanent home and a nearly $100,000 grant from the state. Previously, the organization stored its equipment in a variety of garages and storage units across the region.
In December, WHO was awarded $96,000 in funding from the Wisconsin Department of Veteran Affairs to hire a development director and expand its internship program, which offers veteran-students experience with building a young nonprofit organization.
Eric Falkner, WHO executive director and co-founder, started the group organically in 2016. A former Marine and firefighter, Falkner was receiving treatment at the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center when he met two other veterans, Jason Bartol and Robert Johnson, whom he ended up joining on a fishing trip in Crivitz.
“Where I was in my life, I was very much isolating, I didn’t want to go out and make new friends, I was just trying to keep my own head together,” Falkner said.
But he said he “took a leap of faith,” hopped in his truck and drove up north for the trip.
“We got up there, it was all about the fishing and grilling and all that kind of stuff,” he said. “I had my 'aha' moment when I was out on the water kayak fishing. … I remember just leaning back and finally feeling at peace for the first time in a long time.”
Falkner left the weekend wanting to extend the opportunity to more people like him.
“I said, ‘if I feel this good, we’ve got to share this with other people,’” Falkner said.
The group grew over the next year, as the VA began referring other patients to join Falkner, Bartol and Johnson on their outdoor outings.
“Our doctors noticed a huge change in us,” Falkner said.
The VA began busing veterans from its inpatient program to the water, and the club quickly reached the limit of the three co-founders’ personal supply of gear and equipment.
But, Falkner said, it was obvious the trips were meeting a need. Some veterans wanted to go off on their own to be alone in nature, some wanted to talk about things like navigating the VA mortgage system. Having those conversations – not as clinical psychologists or physicians, but as peers – was key, he said.
“We realized this is a lot more than just fishing,” he said.
In 2018, Falkner initiated the process of forming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and established an endowment fund through the Waukesha County Community Foundation to steward donations, many of which were coming from former participants who wanted to give back to the organization. WHO set up a board of directors and was able to access pro bono legal services through University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic.
Since then, WHO has grown throughout the state, with volunteer regional program coordinators hosting events in southeastern, south central, northwestern and northeastern Wisconsin. It’s also expanded its focus to include first responders.
The organization has struck more partnerships along the way, now working with the VA in Madison, Tomah, and North Chicago, as well as Milwaukee. It also offers its services to other veteran groups and NGOs to integrate outdoor activity into their programs, including the American Legion and local fire and police departments.
A partnership with Lakewood WWV Camp in Lake Geneva allows WHO to host veterans and first responders and their families for retreats on the property, which includes a private lake, golf course and sports activities.
Bringing on development director Tammy Sawyer has also led to the organization to “exponentially grow” its fundraising.
Falkner and Sawyer began taking a salary for the first time last year.
“Up until this past year, we were all volunteer, so it was all a passion project,” he said. “… Now it’s a matter of controlled growth, so we don’t fall victim to our own success at this point.
"Because now that we’ve had this building for two weeks, people are coming in all the time. A lot of people want what we’re doing, so it would be very easy at this point to get overwhelmed. We have to be very strategic making sure that we provide quality and not just quantity.”