Club Information
Welcome to the Rotary Club of Homer-Kachemak Bay!  Celebrating Over 38 Years Serving Homer and the World
Homer-Kachemak Bay

Four Way Test: True, Fair, Goodwill & Beneficial to All

We meet In Person
Thursdays at 12:00 PM
Best Western Bidarka Inn
575 Sterling Hwy
PO Box 377
Homer, AK 99603
United States of America
Currently meetings are being held both "in person" and by Zoom.

An Iraq veteran works through his trauma — and adopts a mission to help others

By 

Zach Skiles thought he was fine.

He completed his time in the Marines at 22 in 2004 after serving in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. His unit was shelled so many times he'd lost count. He was mourning friends lost in combat. But he was home, ready for what was next. "I was just happy to be alive," he says.

Still, the tendrils of war followed him. Skiles, soft-spoken with kind green eyes, found himself waking up to his own screams at night. He had spells where he'd wind up in a public place, like a Walmart, with no idea how he got there. "I didn't realize that I was in a bit of shock," he says. "And I continued to just disassociate every day."

Illustration by Sean McCabe

For those first few years, he bounced between San Francisco and Los Angeles, worked different jobs, and took college classes. He even acted in local theater, channeling his anger into rage-filled characters. But when that anger and frustration started to consume him, he numbed himself with booze and weed. He fell hard for conspiracy theories about the 9/11 terrorist attacks and found himself using phrases like "New World Order" and "the Illuminati." He got fired in 2008 when his employer learned he'd been organizing conspiracy-oriented demonstrations in the community. "Then I slowly spiraled and ended up homeless," he says. "My family didn't really know what to do." After crashing on a friend's couch, he started sleeping on park benches in the Bay Area.

People closest to him told him he needed help. But to Skiles, they were the ones in the wrong. He'd kept in touch with fellow Marines and said everyone else in his unit was going through similar things. They were all dealing with their troubles in their own way. He would too.

In December 2009, Skiles went to a Veterans Affairs facility in Palo Alto for health services. Now that he was homeless, it was clear he wasn't doing fine. A social worker told him the Pathway Home could offer him support and a bed immediately.

A private facility founded in 2007, the Pathway Home leased space on the Veterans Home of California-Yountville campus, a sprawling, serene spread of Mission-style buildings, dotted with redwoods. The Veterans Home is the largest in the country, and more than 600 veterans live in the community. In contrast, the Pathway Home worked with about 40 residents at a time, providing individual and group counseling, educational classes, help accessing VA benefits, job referrals, and more. Most residents would stay four to six months, but some remained as long as a year.

Pathway Home's overarching goal was to help veterans reintegrate into civilian life. The vets tried to learn to move beyond or manage the demons of war. Brown University's Costs of War Project estimated in 2021 that more than 30,000 people who served in the military after the 2001 terrorist attacks have died by suicide. That's more than four times the number who died in military operations over that same period.

The Veterans Home of California-Yountville, where Pathway Home was located.

Eric Risberg/AP/Shutterstock

In the early days of the Pathway Home, its founder and executive director, Fred Gusman, a social worker and mental health specialist who worked with traumatized veterans for more than two decades, spoke to the Rotary Club of Napa, California. He told members about the startling suicide statistics and described how some veterans in crisis wait months before finding a bed in a treatment facility. The speech shook Napa Rotarian Gary Rose. A problem-solver by nature, he began thinking about ways to help and remembered a defunct charity bike ride called Cycle for Sight, which once benefited a camp for blind and partially sighted people. What if Rotary were to help bring back the event to also benefit veterans?

With the help of other area nonprofits and Rotary clubs, including Pacifica, San Rafael, and Brentwood, Cycle for Sight/Rotary Ride for Veterans was launched in 2008. It drew cyclists from across the Bay Area for picturesque 15-, 25-, and 50-mile rides, ending with food, music, and wine. The event raised more than $2 million by 2019 for the Pathway Home, drawing more than 2,000 riders a year before COVID-19 forced it to go virtual. "The love the veterans got from the community was crazy," says Rose.

The Rotary Club of Napa launched the Cycle for Sight/Rotary Ride for Veterans in 2008 to raise money for Pathway Home.

Courtesy of Dorothy Salmon

After learning about the Pathway Home through the VA, Skiles agreed to check in, but not until after the year-end holidays. By choice, he spent Christmas alone, sleeping outside on a bench.

He arrived at the home in January 2010, still in full denial. Looking around the treatment facility, he quickly decided that all the veterans there were crazy, except for him. "I don't deserve to be here," he told himself.

But slowly, over those first few weeks, he noticed how much he had in common with the others. Many of them, too, experienced bouts of rage, confusion, and terror. He attended classes and therapy sessions, participated in yoga and meditation groups. He started building trust and friendships, reflecting on his life and the steps that got him to that point.

When Skiles joined the military in 2000, at 18, he was a smart and sensitive kid with an easy smile and a quick laugh. But he was lost. He'd dropped out of high school and was living in a friend's attic while working at a video rental store. He knew he needed to get it together, but he wasn't sure how. That's when a tall man in a sharp, blue Marine uniform walked into the store. "He was such a good-looking dude," recalls Skiles of the recruiter. "I was like, 'Oh, man. Yeah. Tell me what you got.'"

Zach Skiles enlisted in the U.S. Marines in 2000 when he was 18 years old.

Courtesy of Zach Skiles

Skiles took away from their conversation concepts like outdoors, discipline, respect, education, direction, positive male role models. Skiles was 5-foot-7 and 110 pounds. He'd never held a gun. He enlisted in the Marines.

He never found the job easy. Initially, he was sent to a unit in Okinawa, Japan, that was being investigated because so many of its service members had died by suicide, he recalls. The environment felt toxic from the get-go. "The philosophy was that hate and discontent needed to bleed through the ranks to breed efficiency, and people would stay tough," he says.

But Skiles, an optimist through and through, told himself he would be OK. When his unit deployed to Camp Commando, Kuwait, in January 2003, his understanding was that the situation was just a "show of force." But on 19 March, the war began and the first Iraqi missile to hit the gate of Skiles' camp blew him off his feet. From then on, seemingly every half hour for weeks, his unit came under attack.

As a driver, he delivered fuel to camps, provided convoys security, and helped build infrastructure in Iraq. Along the way, he'd hear Scud missiles approach. "Six to 12 would fire off at once," he says. "They'll eventually end up either on top of you or in front of you or behind you."

Late at night, as he tried to sleep, the barracks filled with traumatized screams.

How your Rotary club can support veterans

After working with veterans for more than 10 years, the Rotary Club of Napa created a downloadable guidebook called Serving Those Who Have Served: Helping Rotarians Better Serve Veterans.

"The goal of this guidebook is to provide a road map for any Rotarian who has thought, 'I'd like to help veterans, but I don't know how,'" says Dorothy Salmon, a club member and past club president, who spearheaded the guide and produced it with the help of author Suzanne Gordon. "It's intended as a gift from one Rotary club in Napa to thousands of Rotary clubs across the country."

The Rotarians' involvement with the Pathway Home went beyond their fundraising ride. Napa club members took the veterans hiking, fishing, and bowling. They helped them write résumés, and introduced them to prospective employers.

When the Pathway Home needed supplies such as blankets, the Rotarians helped out. Napa Rotarian Kent Gardella contacted quilt business, and it made personalized quilts for each veteran, paid for with money raised by Rotary members. One Mother's Day, Gardella, who owns a jewelry store, invited Pathway Home residents to choose an item from his store to give their mom or wife as a gift.

Gardella, a Vietnam veteran, tears up when he reflects on all the times he spent with the veterans. "We didn't baby them," he says. "They're really amazing young people, and that we get to spend time with them, that's a privilege."

Things were starting to come together for Skiles. After a few months at the Pathway Home, he felt a sense of acceptance. "At your lowest, having people who still want to genuinely connect is really special," he says.

In his free time, Skiles devoured books suggested by one of his therapists on the psychological toll of combat. During group sessions, some clinic leaders recognized he had a gift for therapy. His Rotary friends agreed. "We convinced him, 'Hey, you're really a smart kid,'" Dorothy Salmon of the Napa club recalls. "You need to go back to school."

And that's what he did. The boy who had once dropped out of high school got his bachelor's in psychology, and his doctorate in clinical psychology at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. Along the way, he worked in positions that validated that he was doing the right thing, for him and for others, serving as a peer counselor and developing programs to help other veterans. He continued meditating and practiced mindfulness to calm his anxiety.

He wasn't perfect, but he was better and, he thought, probably as good as he was going to get.

On 9 March 2018, tragedy struck again — this time at the Pathway Home.

Afghanistan War veteran Albert Wong rented a car and drove to the facility, where he'd lived until a couple of weeks earlier when he was discharged for not complying with regulations. That day, he interrupted a going-away party for two staff members. He was carrying a 12-gauge shotgun and a .308-caliber semi-automatic rifle.

After the tragedy at the Pathway Home, Napa club members continued to raise money for veterans and created a guidebook outlining ways Rotary clubs can help.

Josh Edelson / Associated Press

After ordering the veteran residents out, he held three staff members hostage: Executive Director Christine Loeber and psychologists Jennifer Gray Golick and Jennifer Gonzales Shushereba, who was pregnant. When a Napa County sheriff's deputy arrived, shots were exchanged. Wong killed the three women, then killed himself.

After the shooting, the Pathway Home, which had treated nearly 460 veterans since its founding, shut down. But Salmon, who served as the home's president from 2013 to 2018, was determined not to let the shooting be the end of the story. "I said to the Rotary club and to the Pathway Home board, are we going to let this be our legacy, after years of incredible success?" says Salmon. "This cannot be the story." To this day, the Rotary Club of Napa raises money for a program that works with veterans at the Martinez VA Medical Center's outpatient clinic.

 

 

From Erdenet, Mongolia, to Evanston, Illinois, support for dads can be life-changing

By 

Three years ago, Davaanyam Gongorjav, a young father living in Erdenet, Mongolia, found himself in dire straits. His wife had recently died of cancer. He had no job and no child care for his daughters, who were 4 and 7 years old. More fundamentally, he was facing a crisis of confidence as a father.

Davaanyam, it turns out, was not alone. There were dozens of single fathers in Erdenet facing similar challenges in a culture where the notion of a father raising children without a partner was alien, and where community support for those fathers was virtually nonexistent.

Word of these fathers had passed from a professor at the International University of Ulaanbaatar to Jennifer Scott, an Australian Rotarian working in law and mediation. Before long, Scott and a group of colleagues had conducted a community needs assessment and organized a workshop for nearly two dozen single fathers, supported by a global grant from The Rotary Foundation.

"These were men in tragic circumstances, who had lost wives in childbirth or to cancer," says Scott, a member of the Rotary Club of Central Blue Mountains, who traveled to Mongolia as part of a vocational training team. "They loved their children and wanted to raise them. But they were living in a society where the mother-in-law viewed child rearing as her role and would try to remove them."

Fathers play an important role in their children’s lives but often lack support.

Image credit: Andrew Esiebo

The recent history of Mongolia only compounded their plight. Under Soviet influence, Mongolian men were tasked with herding and farming, Scott notes, while young women were educated. A subsequent mining boom claimed much of the country's agricultural land, leaving many men without any education or sense of identity. "These men felt, therefore, terribly disempowered," she says.

The workshop, by all accounts, yielded astonishing results. But Scott and the other facilitators first had to learn a crucial lesson. "On the first day of the fathers' training, I invited many female social workers to observe," recalls Enkhtuya Sukhbaatar, a member of the Rotary Club of Ulaanbaatar who helped organize the project. "We wanted to learn from the Australian professionals how to work with these fathers. We didn't realize that fathers in trouble need male trainers."

Only after all the women were asked to leave the room were the fathers willing to discuss the hardships they faced. "That made all the difference," Scott recalls. "The men were finally able to open up about the complexity of parenting, the risk of losing their children while mourning the loss of a wife, and the fact that there was nothing there to support them in the system."

For men such as Davaanyam, the workshop was life-changing. "I feel very lucky to be part of this project," the 31-year-old says. "I cannot imagine how I would have managed my life as a father without it."

Not only did Davaanyam gain confidence in his role as a father but he became a member of a local fathers association. Another dad hired him as a security guard at a vocational school. He's also been able to secure child care and counseling from local agencies.

“The men were finally able to open up about the complexity of parenting ... and the fact that there was nothing there to support them in the system.”

“It was one of those perfect Rotary projects where you go somewhere and are able to truly enable people,” reports Ian Scott, Jennifer’s husband and also a Central Blue Mountains club member, who helped handle administration for the workshop. “Jennifer and her colleagues provided professional and academic support. But it was the locals who really picked it up and ran with it.” The result isn’t just personal empowerment, but systemic change, in the form of greater social and legal support for single fathers in Mongolia.

By the numbers --- Among American dads:

  1. 63%

    say they spend too little time with their children

  2. 39%

    say they are doing a “very good job” raising their children

  3. 57%

    say parenting is “extremely important” to their identity

    Source: Pew Research Center

For Jennifer Scott, the project underscored that while the importance of mothers is universally recognized and supported, the role of fathers is too often overlooked and underserved.

That's a sentiment that Brian Anderson, half a world away in the United States, will second. About a decade ago, when his first daughter was born, Anderson saw his wife quickly join a slew of support groups for mothers, both in person and online. But when he began looking for fathers groups, he found virtually nothing.

Anderson, a social worker and interfaith counselor in Evanston, Illinois, took it upon himself to launch Fathering Together, which began as "a bunch of dads meeting at a bar every month to talk." He soon joined forces with a friend who had formed a Facebook group called Dads with Daughters.

That group has grown into one of the largest fathers networks in the world, with more than 125,000 members. "So many dads were asking questions of the group," Anderson recalls, "and they all really boiled down to this: I want to be a better dad than my dad, but I don't know how and don't know where to look."

Anderson had hit upon the same vacuum of support that Davaanyam struggled with in Mongolia. The question that nagged at Anderson was: why? Why was it so difficult for fathers like him to find community?

After talking to hundreds of fathers informally, Anderson concluded that there are three factors: "First, most of us are still raised in a culture that tells dads you need to be a breadwinner and not much else," he observes. "Second, we're given no support when it comes to translating our professional skills into our lives as fathers. And maybe most important, we're socialized in a way that makes us uncomfortable with emotion."

As membership in the Facebook group exploded, he launched Fathering Together as a nonprofit. "We want to provide support to dads, but also hold them accountable to who they need to be for their families," he says.

That accountability holds true for Anderson himself. He recalls a time a year and a half ago when he was tucking his 7-year-old daughter, Clara, into bed. She wouldn't let him kiss her good night. When he asked what was wrong, she replied, "You know, you run this group for dads, but you're not being a good dad to me."

Children with involved fathers are twice as likely to go to college and 80 percent less likely to spend time in jail, according to research compiled by the University of Texas at Austin.

Image credit: Monika Lozinska.

At the time, Anderson had a full-time job as a program manager while also working nights and weekends on Fathering Together. The truth of his daughter's comment pierced him. Holding back tears, he told his daughter she was right. He acknowledged he was putting all his creative energy into his project, rather than into his family. And he pledged to change that.

A couple of weeks later, a major source of funding came through, allowing Anderson to leave his job and devote himself to Fathering Together full time.

Through the nonprofit, he has run workshops to empower fathers to tell their stories and to understand the values they seek to pass down to their children.

"I encounter so many dads who are dealing with the trauma of disconnection from their own fathers and who are saying, 'I need to be the one who changes that,'" he says. "The question is: How do we let go of the old trappings and live a more connected dad life?"

To that end, Anderson is working on a book called Fathering Together.

The goal for today's fathers, he says, remains the same, whether you're in Evanston or Erdenet. "It's not to be perfect, because we all mess things up," he says. "It's to be present for our children — to honor the gift of being a dad."

This story originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of Rotary magazine.

This Project was Supported by a Global Grant from The Rotary Foundation.

Speakers
Erin Workman
Dec 01, 2022
UAA School of Nursing students and Books for Africa
Tela O'Donnell Bacher
Dec 08, 2022
Olympic wrestler and inspirational speaker
Christmas program
Dec 15, 2022
No Meeting
Dec 22, 2022
No Meeting
Dec 29, 2022
Capt. Garay
Jan 05, 2023
SW Marine Pilots Association
Silas Luke Jones
Jan 12, 2023
Amazing and Entertaining young guitarist
Sarah Borgen
Jan 19, 2023
Haven House
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