116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
This year, Healing at English River Outfitters — a nonprofit veteran’s organization known as HERO — is fulfilling a dream of its founder and president, who died in a motorcycle crash in 2019, by constructing a large lodge that veterans and their families can use while enjoying the rural nature retreat in Washington County.
The Gazette talked to Rod Courtney, executive director of HERO, just before Veterans Day about the organization and how they moved forward after their founder’s death.
Q: Can you explain the organization’s history and mission?
A: Healing at English River Outfitters was founded by our president, Chuck “Bowtie” Geertz, in May of 2008, with a mission to provide a quiet, relaxing recreation area for our veterans and their families. The organization promotes experiences in nature as a way to heal. In the first five years, HERO went from primitive huts with no heat or running water to building a smaller lodge that could sleep six with full accommodations. We operated like this until 2019.
The plans for the construction of the much larger lodge, which is now underway, started in 2018 as the Fraternal Order of Eagles of Iowa partnered with HERO, choosing us as their “Iowa State Charity Project.” By June 16, 2019, the FOE collected $171,104 for HERO to start that construction. Unfortunately, Chuck passed away in August of that year as the result of a tragic motorcycle accident on his way back from a veteran event in Cripple Creek, Colo.
With Chuck’s passing came a new resolve to complete the project and fulfill his dream of helping veterans and their families. In the fall of 2019, the foundation was poured and the main structure went up. There will be five bedrooms, five bathrooms, kitchen, recreation area, office, great room, conference area, laundry room, wraparound covered porch and the main two levels are handicap accessible.
This work slowed down during the winter but by the spring of last year we were ready to go, but coronavirus was the challenge. Fundraising became harder, volunteers were hard to come by and we were all still in mourning.
This year has proved to be a very productive year and we are well on our way for completion by July of 2022.
Q: How did you get involved with HERO?
A: I became involved in March of 2020, after I had been approached by then President Dave Lewis. Dave knew that I had some experience working with nonprofits and veterans. I am a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, serving from 1972 to 1976. He asked if I would be interested in volunteering. I was honored and happy to be part of this project. I was nominated for vice president and voted in June of 2020. In August, our executive director stepped down due to the demands of his business and family, and I was voted in as executive director.
Q: Does HERO rely on individual donations or from companies and other organizations? Any grants?
A: Trying to list all our donors and volunteers over the years would be impossible. Of course, there was the generosity of the FOE. Then, it has been a series of donations by VFWs, American Legions, motorcycle associations and clubs, some monthly pledges, individuals, stores, lumber suppliers, construction companies, and grants. We currently have a GoFundMe to raise donations to continue our work. This has all shown me that we are building much more than a lodge, we are building community. Some days as I watch all this fall into place I’m overwhelmed with gratitude.
Q: What have veterans told you about their experiences staying at the resort or taking advantage of the outdoor activities?
A: There seems to be one common thread — connection and camaraderie. People that have served in the military know the meaning of connection at a level many will never experience. Having the opportunity to disconnect from the rigors and stress of everyday life and spend time with someone who has had a similar experience is healing. Just knowing you are not alone in the way you think and feel is empowering.
Q: What are some of the activities available to the veterans and their families?
A: Some of the things that have taken place over the past few years include wild game feeds, “haunted trail” for Halloween, Easter egg hunts, goose hunts, wild boar hunts and deer hunts. These events or activities have been limited because of the pandemic.
We have had retreats to raise awareness and provide support for those dealing with military sexual trauma. In the upcoming year we are planning a peer support training for those interested, and the creation of a PTSD support group. With the expansion of the lodge will come the expansion of services.
Q: You mentioned there were some recent build days that got the construction of the lodge underway?
A: We connected with Todd Hahn Construction and I discovered Todd was a submarine sailor in the U.S. Navy and he has a special place in his heart for veterans. He agreed to be the construction coordinator and consultant, and then agreed to be our vice president. Todd set up an old fashioned “barn raising” event for Oct. 23 with over 50 volunteers. Many included volunteers involved with construction, design, lumber, engineering, plumbing and landscaping companies in Eastern Iowa.
Also, several other volunteers came to help. The level of skill and work accomplished in one day was amazing.
We had a second build day Nov. 6. This was a smaller day just to tie up loose ends and prepare for the next steps of duct work and furnace installation. This year is going to be our year. We will never to be able to thank everyone involved enough.
Anyone interested in volunteering, contact Rod Courtney, at 319-594-3431. Lodging will not be available until July 2022.
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