Allegra Jordan served as the Executive Director of the Rick Herrema Foundation (RHF) from 2017-2020. Designated an “Architect of Change” by Maria Shriver, she develops superior teams so businesses and communities can prosper.
The author of four books, Allegra graduated from Harvard Business School and Georgetown University’s Leadership Coaching certificate program. Her 2020 book Love’s Red Door: Renewing your Community with a Respite Park provides a deeper look at Rick’s Place, the park described here. For more on Allegra Jordan please go to www.allegrajordan.com.
Context: Two or three sentences about the work with returning warriors
Since 9/11, the U.S. has relied on a small cadre of soldiers to fight the Wars on Terror. 40% of today’s service members are parents. These families bear the stress, fears and dangers of training and war. To help these families re-connect in-between deployments, soldiers wished to create a park to organize fun, quality activities for military families that would help strengthen relationships and build a supportive community. The soldiers founded the 50-acre park, Rick’s Place, just five miles from Ft. Bragg, the US’ largest military installation by population. The park is managed by the Rick Herrema Foundation, named for a fellow soldier killed in action.
THREE THINGS THAT WORKED:
1. We provided activities to address the needs of inter-generational, economically, and ethnically diverse audiences.
The military is a melting pot. At Rick’s Place we provide events that span generations (so no family member would be bored) and appeal to people of all ethnic backgrounds and military rank. We also intentionally created a balance of volunteer and entertainment opportunities to meet the specific way our service families like to have fun.
Pre-COVID, we hosted roughly 800 visits a month from soldiers, friends, and family members. With primarily volunteer labor, we built 11 durable structures and hosted more than 75 live events. This included three huge obstacle courses over water that were designed and built by the architect of the America Ninja Warrior sets. From 2017-2020, we logged in excess of 20,000 volunteer hours and thousands of visitors from across our military and civilian communities.
2. All activities promoted relationship-bonding through stigma-free, fun, quality activities.
Rick’s Place helps repair relationships. We found success with two activity design rules:
- Presume health. Separation and stress take their toll on relationships. However, if Rick’s Place was seen as a place “broken people go,” service members would not come. Our activities had to focus on fun ways to socially bond. When people wished to discuss their challenges, we could listen sympathetically and point them to resources if requested.
- Bond. It was not enough for an activity to be fun for one person in a family, the activity had to help people bond. This challenge led to activities where parents and children could cheer for each other, where the family was a team, or in group activities where physical attachment was a key factor (e.g., swaying while doing a call-and-response war cry before a competition). If a person was a single service-member, then that person would be on a team to help carry out the event. Surprisingly, the parking team was the team that had the most fun during my time at Rick’s Place (though cars were often parked in a haphazard manner).
3. Raising money with a strategic plan
When I took over, RHF had $64 (year-end, projected) in the bank. When I left, RHF had $1.7 million in the bank, and had raised approximately $3 million for both cash reserves and infrastructure. This was accomplished by my writing a strategic plan that could be easily pitched to many different audiences. That plan was not in place when I got to the park, and writing strategic plans was a skill set that I brought to the park. I listened humbly and to many people of all ages and ranks. We then pooled our pocket money to have a few events, allowing me to show proof of concept to donors. I then drafted reasonably detailed documents with cost estimates. When we had the opportunity to pitch our idea, we were ready. And, when COVID-19 hit, and fundraising shut down for many parks, our team had the cash it needed for this difficult time.
TWO CHALLENGES WE CONSISTENTLY FACED
1. Our desired outcome (flourishing humans and families) were unfamiliar with our visitors’ life experiences.
We wanted visitors and their loved ones to flourish. Most people working with us had not experienced or seen healthy humans flourish in relationships. We had to continually model and educate our visitors and partners about what flourishing looked, felt, and acted like.
2. Strategic Planning
Our Special Forces and US Army family member families are often brilliant at a tactical level. If you need to clear a field of large trees in two days, that will actually happen. This was like no non-profit I had ever been with. Their ability to move tactically is unparalleled. It is a thing of great beauty.
However, this group is not practiced at building a new, durable culture from the ground up. Service members inherit a culture and a powerfully strong organization. They are supremely confident in their abilities. They were often blind to what was required for a non-profit to thrive. When one says something is an organizational problem and another confidently does not accept that as true, the resulting educational process is wearying.
OUR GREATEST ACHIEVEMENTS
Our greatest achievement was to witness signs of flourishing in people who had not been flourishing. For instance, one military-affiliated teen volunteer said,
“When Rick died, his life ended. But with Rick’s Place, my life began. I don’t know what I’d do without Rick’s Place.” A Special Forces soldier said, “Before Rick’s Place, I didn’t want a family. Now, when I get out of the Army, I want to be a dad. I want to be a great dad. It’s going to be fun.”
The following letter summarizes the internal transformation we sought to catalyze: In December 2019, a Special Forces service member (name withheld) wrote me this letter:
“Since the beginning of Rick’s Place, my family and I have volunteered and taken part in various events and invited numerous people to come out and enjoy one of the many family-friendly events Rick’s Place hosted.
I remember my oldest son and I going to the monthly work events and working from around 0800 till about 1400. I never would have imagined the skills I would develop by volunteering. Skills like being a team leader and becoming more vocal.
I became a better leader by working in small groups and sometimes on projects of my own. I remember taking charge of numerous tasks like chopping trees and clearing out fields, or as they call it here, lawnmower therapy. One of my greatest challenges was for me to take charge. I have always been good at listening and following directions, but when I was put in charge I was forced to become more vocal and make decisions to help us get the job done right and on time.
Looking back over the years, I feel a sense of gratitude from what transpired from a field covered with trees containing a trailer, an old tractor, and an old stable. I am grateful because Rick’s Place and its facilities helped me grow out of my shell to become a better husband, leader, and follower of God.
Thank you for all you have given me.”
ONE PIECE OF ADVICE
Treat everyone–janitor, child, wealthy patron, powerful general– with equal genuine respect, empathy, and warmth. These core conditions are non-negotiable. The results will be reflected in everything from park cleanliness, to activity quality, and to the growing sense that individuals can and should have the agency to help their community flourish.