By Heidi Baumstark
It’s a powerful thing when a community comes together for a common good especially when the weaving of people’s talents and passions benefit some of the most deserving: our military servicemen and women.
Serve Our Willing Warriors—a charitable non-profit founded in March 2013 – has formed strategic partnerships between local organizations throughout Northern Virginia. Together, these groups are making a difference, impacting wounded warriors and their families who stay at the Warrior Retreat at Bull Run in Haymarket for six-day stays.
Known as the Warrior Retreat, the property in the Bull Run Mountains which opened in 2015 is the flagship program of Serve Our Willing Warriors (SOWW). To date, the non-profit has hosted about 300 wounded warriors along with approximately 700 of their family members invited to join them on their medically-cleared stays as they recover from physical and emotional injuries.
SOWW is aligning with businesses, veteran support groups, civic groups, churches, individual donors and other organizations throughout the national capital region including several Loudoun County entities. Joshua’s Hands and Station Stitchers provide hand-sewn quilts to warm bodies, hearts and souls. The Mighty Oaks Foundation, a faith-based veteran service group, focuses on the healing aspects of those suffering from PTS through peer-to-peer recovery programs. Courtland Retreat for Healing and Learning in Aldie like SOWW provides complimentary stays for recovering military personnel and patients dealing with life-threatening illnesses.
SOWW is the brainchild of husband-and-wife team, John and Shirley Dominick of Haymarket. John Dominick, a project manager for the U.S. Department of Defense and former Army medical corpsman, is SOWW’s vice president and co-founder. Shirley Dominick, a retired Air Force officer with 30 years of leadership, is SOWW’s president and co-founder. She served 10 years at the Pentagon managing communications and computer systems to support the Secretary of the Air Force, Air Staff, Joint Chief of Staff and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
It all began with the Dominicks bringing Christmas gifts to injured soldiers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda with their small group from Park Valley Church in Haymarket in December 2006. This event ignited a passion in the hearts of volunteers and year after year more were recruited for the annual Christmas gift-giving. Summer cookouts began. Then a second hospital, Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Fairfax County, was added.
“SOWW is an organization that was conceived as an idea and developed with the passion and commitment of an all-volunteer board and staff. Our mission soon grew into a total community effort that is now spreading throughout the Northern Virginia area,” John said. “SOWW has been successful in bringing different groups together in neighboring Fauquier and Loudoun counties who have caught the vision to help those who proudly serve our country.”
Today, warriors and their families can participate in programs and enjoy a “home away from home” for a time of relaxation and recreation on 37-acres that includes two guesthouses at the Warrior Retreat. It serves as a break from prolonged hospital care for recuperating service members and their loved ones who stand beside them. The Retreat lets the whole family relax and reconnect.
The first guesthouse at the Warrior Retreat opened July 4, 2015; the second house opened December 12, 2018. Each house is handicap accessible and can accommodate up to 12 people with five bedroom suites. The houses each have a gourmet kitchen, an elevator, wide-screen televisions, handicapped bathrooms, rec room, massage room, a gaming room, pool table and a kitchenette. Outdoor amenities include a basketball court, playground, picnic area, hiking trails, patio and a wood-burning fire pit.
“Our caring staff and volunteers plan, coordinate and manage every aspect of the six-day stays based on the guests’ interests and preferences,” Shirley explained. “We offer several free activities including fishing excursions, helicopter tours, horseback riding, canine therapy sessions, professional photo shoots, visits to museums, shooting ranges, vineyards, historical attractions such as Manassas National Battlefield Park and visits to the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas.”
According to the founders, guests have experienced strengthened marriages, family relationships, breakthroughs from Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS), traumatic brain injury and new hope to offset depression and suicidal thoughts. And they don’t pay a dime.
On Sunday afternoons, guests are treated to a gourmet meal prepared and served by one of 40-plus professional rotating chefs and their volunteers. Larry Zilliox, director of culinary services, says, “Our Visiting Chef Program gives chefs a chance to give back doing what they love. Most guests suffer from PTS and don’t go out to restaurants because there is too much noise and commotion for them to have an enjoyable time. So we bring a five-star culinary experience to them and prepare what is for most the best meal of their lives.” Zilliox and his wife, Charmaine, recently celebrated five years of volunteering with SOWW.
With all this vision and desire to help, other non-profits are chiming in. When Joshua’s Hands and Station Stitchers learned about the Warrior Retreat’s mission they decided to help by donating quilts for both guesthouses. Joshua’s Hands was founded by Joyce Guthrie in memory of her 16-year-old son, Joshua, who lived his short years as a servant and inspiration to those around him.
Joshua’s Hands’ mission is to encourage willing hands and servants’ hearts to cultivate the spirit of volunteerism and community involvement. Since 2011, the organization has hosted a Valiant Warrior Quilting 10-day event twice a year; all quilts are donated to worthy groups, including guests at the Warrior Retreat. Their next quilting event is June 7-16 at 205 N. Maple Avenue in Purcellville. Guthrie says it’s totally on a drop-in basis for groups or individuals, community organizations, scouts, churches and corporate groups.
“Men and women, young and old, come. We have people who don’t know how to hold scissors. They’re learning while serving—I love that combination. We do 100 quilts in 10 days. This past January, we did 114,” said Guthrie.
Station Stitchers, established in 2010 under the direction of Penny Dunn, was named after the historic Purcellville Train Station where the group first met for quilting projects. Joshua’s Hands serves as the parent organization. Station Stitchers share their love of quilting with those in need, including patients at INOVA Loudoun Hospital in Leesburg. Projects are distributed to patients in oncology, intensive care and neonatal intensive care units, and to recovering soldiers at the Warrior Retreat. Since its formation, the group has donated more than 1,550 quilts; each quilt comes with a special label that shows “Station Stitchers” and the date the quilt was made.
Station Stitchers meet year round four days a week (Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday) from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. No longer at the train station, Dunn opened a store front located at 201 N. Maple Avenue, Suite F in Purcellville. She sells hand-made items such as quilted blankets, purses and wall hangings; all proceeds funnel back into the charity that supplies quilts to hospitals and places like the Warrior Retreat.
Mighty Oaks Foundation is another non-profit helping SOWW by providing programs and counseling for people suffering from PTS and traumatic brain injuries. Seminars are held four times a year. In March, 13 warriors and seven counselors participated in one of these free PTS seminars. “This experience was more than a temporary retreat; it has become a home, a place of healing and a time of meeting a new-found family. It has allowed us to recharge from the daily stressors of recovering in the hospital environment while enjoying comforts of a home-away-from-home. We could enjoy a cup of coffee on the front porch gazing at the mountains, take a nap on the couch and prepare our own meals. My stay here was pivotal in my therapy,” said Theresa R., Captain, U.S. Army (Ret.).
John relayed a story of four “battle buddies” who stayed at the retreat with their families. They had not seen each other in 10 years since their Humvee hit an IED (improvised explosive device) that killed two of their friends. These four survivors spent months and years in recovery. “They told us the time spent together again at the retreat was the best therapy they could ever hope for,” John shared.
Recently, SOWW established a partnership with a second retreat: Courtland Retreat for Healing and Learning, which is a 100-acre site at the historic Courtland Farm in Aldie which just opened in December 2018. Jacqueline Black is the newly appointed executive director. The for-profit side of Courtland Farm is called The Manor at Courtland Farm, which is an elegant venue for business, private functions and chic rustic weddings.
Black added, “As a non-profit, we invite families to come for three-day stays who are dealing with cancer, life-threatening illnesses; we also host underprivileged children and military personnel. We open our facility for healing, restoration, free of charge.” Part of their recreation includes a pool, horses for horseback riding, a fish pond and a playground. The facility accommodates up to 20 people overnight. They can host three or four families at one time depending on the family size. In 2018, the Dominicks visited Courtland Farm, and they invited Black to tour their Warrior Retreat. “That’s when we asked, how can we be of service to each other,” Black said.
“Our partnership with Courtland Farm has proven to be a true asset in helping to improve the lives of our warriors and their families. Our community understands the importance of our military families and has shown their commitment by bringing their talents, time and financial resources in supporting this cause,” said the SOWW founder.
And the retreat’s success is growing by evidence of an increasing demand and a waiting list. In response, Shirley added, “Our goal is to build three additional lodging houses and a multi-purpose building.”
“Strategic partnerships such as these are exactly the kind of win-win-win situations that Serve Our Willing Warriors seeks out in fulfilling its mission. Everyone involved benefits in the relationships that are developed in the act of giving back to some very deserving people,” John added.
To learn more about Serve Our Willing Warriors and the Warrior Retreat at Bull Run, visit www.willingwarriors.org. SOWW is sustained by annual fundraising events and generous donations. For more information on Joshua’s Hands and Station Stitchers, visit www.joshuashands.org/Station_Stitchers. Learn more about Mighty Oaks Foundation at www.mightyoaksprograms.org Visit www.crhlva.com to learn more about Courtland Retreat for Healing and Learning.
This article first appeared in the April 2019 issue of Middleburg Life.