By Carrie McLeroyNovember 3, 2008
Mike Conklin is a man on a mission. After one of his three Army Ranger sons was wounded in Iraq in 2003, he committed to do something palpable to help severely wounded servicemen and women. "I thought to myself, I can do more than put a yellow ribbon magnet on my car, and I should."
When Spc. Jake Brown, a friend of Conklin's middle son, was crushed by an Abrams tank while serving in Germany that same year, Conklin seized his opportunity to take action.
Brown was in a coma initially, and not expected to survive. He endured 26 operations, according to Conklin. "When he came back home, there was really nothing for him, and I kept asking myself, 'What is our responsibility as a community''"
Conklin decided to do all he could to help Brown get back on his feet and make a successful transition from military to civilian life. He gathered a group of about 10 community leaders to include a doctor, lawyer, developers, builders and other professionals. "I told them that I wanted to help this member of our community, and I asked them to join me. This went from a one-man operation to a community program in 15 minutes." The Sentinels of Freedom Foundation was born.
Conklin, who was a developer, builder and real estate broker in Danville, Calif., at the time, said every member of the group was ready to do whatever they could to assist Brown. They combined efforts and assets to provide Brown with rent-free, furnished housing, a vehicle and a job, and helped him begin his post-military education. Brown is currently a successful member of the United Parcel Service team in the California Bay Area, and will soon graduate from the University of California, Hayward.
"We just gave him a chance," Conklin said. "Ninety-nine percent of the water was carried by Jake Brown." Although the non-profit organization assists with job placement, it is up to the individual to apply and interview for positions within companies, just as any other job candidate would. They also must have, within themselves, the drive to succeed.
About two months after their initial meeting, Conklin gathered the group again, this time to thank them for their help. During lunch the question was raised, "Why couldn't we do this again, for someone outside this community'" They all agreed to establish The Sentinels of Freedom as a sustaining, enduring scholarship program.
The Sentinels of Freedom Foundation began as a grassroots effort, "to provide life-changing opportunities for men and women of the U.S. armed forces who have suffered severe service-related injuries and need the support of grateful communities to realize their dreams," according to Conklin.
It provides four-year, "life scholarships," to men and women of the armed services whose wounds led to amputation, paraplegia, severe burns, blindness and/or deafness. According to Conklin, applicants must have a 60 percent disability rating from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Participation in the program is a four-year commitment for both the service members and the communities involved.
The foundation maintains a well-defined mission, according to Conklin. "There is no mission creep, and the requirements for participation are very clear," he said. The organization has set up a Web site, where those interested can learn more about the scholarship, supporting communities and partners, as well as the individual Sentinels. Eligible men and women can also apply for scholarships through the site.
Conklin and his peers began reaching out to other communities and their leaders, and eventually established working relationships with the VA and the Defense Department. "We have asked for professional courtesies to help us place people," he said. "They have been golden with us and helped us take a proactive stance with each individual."
Scholarship recipients are called, "Sentinels," in honor of their sacrifice and commitment to guarding the nation's freedoms, according to Conklin. "Regardless of political affiliation or their feelings on the wars, communities are realizing the value of these individuals' service. We have a responsibility to them, and we're committed to accept that responsibility and provide assistance."
The foundation's scope has widened in recent months. There are currently two Sentinels in Arizona, three in Colorado, nine in California, and three others headed to Chicago, Wisconsin and Alabama.
Several corporations have joined Conklin in his endeavor, providing donations, jobs and other assistance, which have enabled the foundation to broaden its reach. Quest, Verizon, Cisco, AT&T, Chevron, Wells Fargo and UPS have all gotten involved.
Jones International University, the first fully online university in the U.S. to be granted regional accreditation, was named the Sentinels of Freedom's preferred provider of online education in August 2007. According to university representatives, JIU will be, "instrumental in assisting Sentinels in achieving not only their educational goals, but also their life goals."
In March 2007, REMAX International became one of the first national corporate sponsors, helping to grow the foundation at all levels, to include funding its entire overhead costs and housing its headquarters for more than a year.
According to Ronda Scholting, a REMAX public relations manager, the relationship between the foundation and REMAX is a natural one. "Mike Conklin was a REMAX broker at the time. He asked for a meeting with Dave Liniger, chairman and cofounder of REMAX, to see if there was any interest."
Scholting said that Liniger, a Vietnam veteran, remembered how veterans during that time were not welcomed home with open arms, and were often forgotten by their communities. "He saw a real need and wanted to help."
She went on to say that real estate and other professionals who make up support/mentor teams for Sentinels often have an extensive network of contacts within communities. "Most of these individuals aren't from the communities they are placed in, but they are looking for a fresh start. Instead of going into a community not knowing anyone, they now know a team of people who know everyone."
Amanda Okker, who works in the communications department at REMAX, said the company is honored to play such a major role, but credits the Sentinels themselves, communities, small businesses and other larger companies with the foundation's success so far. "REMAX is just one company helping. There are others working just as hard to contribute and make this work."
Although Conklin said the foundation has been effective due to its grassroots approach, he admitted it would need additional corporate and community investments to continue to thrive.
"We are looking even more into corporate involvement," Conklin said. "If we can get companies to invest in one man or woman, we will find the right person (to be a Sentinel), and they will succeed."
The majority of Sentinels of Freedom communities are located in the western part of the country, according to Conklin, who said he hopes that communities in the east will be inspired to help as well.
"If a community wants to get involved, it has to prove it has the assets and resources available and the people in place to sustain scholarships for four years."
Conklin added it is not only vital that communities have a passion to get involved, but also a team of dedicated professionals in place with a plan to guide a Sentinel placed with them. "We won't create false hope or make false promises to these men and women."
There are training opportunities available for teams willing to devote the necessary time and effort, Conklin said. "We can send them training materials, provide advice and in some cases even match (portions of) funds donated by communities. We will work with communities ready to host a Sentinel."
The foundation hopes communities will welcome another 25 Sentinels in 2008. With continued support, Conklin said he believes the goal is attainable. "We are moving ahead with realistic, measured steps," he said. "We have succeeded so far, because entire communities have come forward to support our Sentinels."
Conklin and his compatriots continue to rally support for the Sentinels, and have set their sites not only on corporate America, but the U.S. government as well. "We are beginning to excite interest in Congress, and the governor of California has taken a personal interest in this, and rightfully so."
The Sentinels in the program are thriving, according to Conklin, because teams of volunteers helped carve niches in their communities for these wounded warriors, allowing them to regain their independence. "We are committed, long term, to helping communities across America support as many of these men and women as possible. One Sentinel, one victory at a time."