Heroes to Hometowns
Writer Rebecca Zaner
Photographer Michele Celentano
America’s freedom is not an entitlement; it is a privilege. There are thousands of men and women who fight for our freedom and protect our well-being every day. Among these brave heroes are wounded service members who, because of injuries they’ve sustained, can no longer serve in the military. When these service members transition back into their hometown communities, they need many different types of aid to try and return to a normal life.
Enter Arizona Heroes to Hometowns, a nonprofit organization that works toward what may seem like a simple mission — giving our injured soldiers and veterans the welcome home they deserve — through a complex web of support programs and assistance.
“The goal of our organization is to help our wounded heroes financially, physically, socially and spiritually to find their new normal,” explains Kathy Pearce, the organization’s CEO and founder.
Arizona Heroes to Hometowns consists of loving families and supportive community members, all of whom wish to help wounded soldiers continue life as happy and appreciated individuals. Its programs focus on the important transition between life in service and life at home. Resources include counseling, mentoring, therapy, financial assistance and medical transportation. Having these services easily available gives veterans a greater chance for long-term success. The program also provides special services to improve the soldiers’ happiness and mental health, such as homecoming parties, holiday celebrations and recreational activities.
By providing wounded warriors with resources to ease the transition, veterans experience a less stressful change.
“My son was in the Army and was deployed to Iraq 11 years ago,” Kathy shares. “He was 22 at the time. He was seriously injured and when he returned home, the transition was extremely hard on him. That’s when I realized he was lonely and depressed. Certain resources were unavailable to him. He had surgery and physical therapy for years, but I knew that something was missing. It was then I decided to start this program. I want to help others like my son discover their new normal. Their lives have changed and that’s OK. They need to know that.”
Kathy started Arizona Heroes to Hometowns at the end of 2010. It has been going strong from the beginning, thanks to many generous donations, and her hope is to provide even more services. Unfortunately, many veterans experience high divorce rates because of financial trouble and emotional hardship. Arizona Heroes to Hometowns offers small group classes and seminars that aid veterans with goal setting, finance, education and alternative medicine.
“Just being able to keep one family together is a wonderful thing,” says Kathy. “Although because of our efforts, we help many more than just one family.”
To enrich veterans with social and emotional support, Arizona Heroes to Hometowns makes meeting other veterans an available and easy option. There are many wounded soldiers who feel more comfortable being with others like them — others who have experienced similar hardships of the military. When veterans meet and interact with fellow veterans who have served and returned home, they can connect on a level that not many people can even come close to sharing.
“I’ve had veterans tell me that they met some of their best friends through our program,” says Kathy. “At one of our veteran dinners, a Marine and an Army soldier who had never met shared stories of their military lives and became friends. We call them battle buddies.”
Along with forming new bonds and friendships that help veterans move forward in life, Arizona Heroes to Hometowns is sometimes able to provide fun activities, such as tickets to sporting events and games, concerts and special holiday meals. During Thanksgiving, the organization offers Turkeys to Troops, raising money throughout the year to provide grocery gift cards for families of veterans all over Arizona. The families then use that money to buy a turkey.
Over the summer, Arizona Heroes to Hometowns partnered with local food banks to begin preparations to provide 2,500 food boxes that will support military families during the upcoming Thanksgiving season. The organization continues to seek donations for these boxes, which each include a $25 gift card to buy a turkey or ham for the holidays. Donations are being accepted through November 11.
“We currently help more than 1,800 families,” says Kathy. “We helped half as many during our first year and have grown so much. Our programs have doubled in size and our locations have expanded, as well. We started with only one location, and now we have six.”
Another of the organization’s biggest fundraisers is their annual event, Salute a Soldier 5K, a run that is held every March. Race participants can choose to run the 5K or walk a mile. Wounded heroes who choose to participate receive free entry, as the program covers their cost. The family event gives wounded veterans an opportunity to reconnect with loved ones and get back out into the community in a positive way.
Arizona Heroes to Hometowns is always in need of volunteers, but they are especially vital during the holiday season. Volunteers are needed to help fundraise, buy holiday presents, wrap gifts and, of course, run the events that give our wounded service members a warm welcome home.