Last Updated on September 12, 2022 by Luke Feldbrugge
When you are a national organization serving community heroes in every corner of the United States, you might miss some of the amazing charities in your own backyard. We didn’t. This month, Homes for Heroes targeted three of our neighboring organizations (Homes for Heroes is headquartered in Minnesota) because of their generous work helping first responders with some of the toughest issues out there: mental health, stress and community support. This month, each of the three grants for first responder organization were $10,000 to help them in their missions AND to honor the anniversary of 9/11.
The organizations getting the award from the Homes for Heroes Foundation are:
The first responders of Minnesota have faced a tough three years. The pandemic put tremendous pressure on the health care community. Then, the riots in Minneapolis in 2020 reverberated across the law enforcement community in the city and throughout the state. These three organizations are dedicated to helping us heal the wounds, the burn-out and the rebuilding of trust in our communities.
Russ Hanes, founder of the Invisible Wound Project, started an organization to help deliver mental health aid to first responders. He said, “What you see talked about is the tip of the iceberg. What we are seeing is a lot of people hurting and just starting to ask for help. As we move forward, we get more people out of the shadows.”
Kris Benysek, from the Backing the Blue Line organization, echoes that. “Those men and women in blue, brown, maroon – they just want to come home to their families at night.” Her charity helps support the law enforcement community by helping the wives of officers and their unique challenges.
Because Homes for Heroes had its genesis in the shadow of 9/11, it only makes sense that we would reach out to these organizations in September.
As Lisa Walsh, Director of the Homes for Heroes Foundation puts it, “Minnesota still needs healing at many levels. The emergencies our first responders faced still haunt them, and we need to be there for them in any way we can. In addition to these grants, the Foundation has cemented its legacy of helping heroes in need by funding a Homes for Heroes Suite in the Hennepin County Medical Center’s Transitional Healing Center, due to open by the end of the year.”
As this anniversary passes, Home for Heroes will continue its work to find, and fund, the charities and organizations that help our heroes. …because that’s what they do for us.
The Invisible Wounds Project Interview with Angela Harren
Homes for Heroes social media coordinator, Angela Harren, talks to Russ Hanes of the Invisible Wounds Project. You can watch the full interview here or read the transcript of the interview below.
Angela: I am here today with the Homes for Heroes Foundation and we have just donated $10,000 to the Invisible Wounds Project. I’m sitting here with Russ. Russ can you tell us about the Invisible Wounds Project and its mission to serve the hero community.
Russ: Yes, at the Invisible Wounds Project, we work with military, first responders, front line medical staff, EMS, dispatch, corrections and their families regarding mental health, PTSD, and suicide issues. We provide therapy services and other resources for them related to those mental conditions.
Angela: That’s great. When was the Invisible Wound Project founded and what inspired the founders to create it?
Russ: The Invisible Wounds Project officially became a non-profit in 2019, but truly the work started back in 2009. It started as an event called Cruise for Troops, and it was a way for me to pay tribute to my dad, who’s a navy vet. I just wanted to give back to military charities, and so we kind of ran under the umbrella of other charities and donated money to them. It just grew and grew. It started with like 50 people in a parking lot doing a car cruise, and then it just grew over time. Now that same event has several thousand people at it. In 2015, I was working as a 911 dispatcher. I’d been working in law enforcement, dispatch, corrections for 17 years at that point, and I was diagnosed with PTSD myself. I started to struggle. I realized I had to do something different, and so I chose to just leave the profession all together. In the early part of 2016 there were just no resources for someone like me, and so I looked at what I had been doing under the umbrella of these other charities. I decided we needed to do something that was more encompassing. We needed something that included me, and my people, and all my friends, and all these people that are struggling and still continue to struggle. So that’s where the Invisible Wounds Project came from.
Angela: What type of resources does the Invisible Wounds Project provide the hero community?
Russ: Our primary function is mental health therapy, so we have approximately 20 different providers throughout the state that work with therapy services. We do traditional therapy and we have equine therapy. We have a couple of equine therapy providers, and when I say equine therapy, it’s not the “going out on a horseback ride and going on a trail right up the mountain.” It’s boots on the ground therapy, where it’s a provider, it’s the client, and there’s an equine specialist. That’s part of it. The horse has become part of that team, so we do a lot of work in that realm. We have a couple individual therapists throughout the state in areas where we don’t have partnerships with bigger groups. But typically a client will reach out to the Invisible Wounds Project. We do an intake process, determine what their needs are, and then we meet them where their needs are–and where they’re geographically located. So if they’re in the metro, we have a lot more resources in the metro. We also have a lot more people in the metro, but we see a lot from down in Rochester. We see a fair amount from central Minnesota. We have people up in Duluth. We have people throughout the state. We provide those therapies completely free of charge, off the record. The only time we worry about going on the record is if there are people who are going through PTSD medical retirement. Then they have to have documentation of therapy. So then we will document it.
But otherwise, we keep things off the record because with a lot of our people-–whether the active military or police or any of our groups—they don’t really want their employers to know. They are uneasy even going to their EAP programs a lot of times, especially the really critical ones. When it’s on a critical scale, say a one-to-ten, most of the people that we initially intake are in that seven-to-ten. We work with people who are at their worst spot in their life almost daily.
Angela: Can you share any stories about the impact the Invisible Wounds Project has had on the hero community?
Russ: We’re bringing in about five people a week and to get positive results generally will take a year. Before they’re willing to share their story, usually it’s about two years. So we’re just starting to collect those stories. But I can tell you there’s a veteran family that we’ve worked with: she’s a nurse and he is a veteran. When we initially started working with them was back in 2019.
When we first started, we had some dogs that were donated. We don’t do a ton of work on the service dog side, but that is something that we do. So we had these dogs donated and they were just going to be more companion dogs than anything. She had reached out on behalf of her husband, who was really struggling. So the process was to fill out the application for this dog, and we never got that application.
So I just kept talking to her and said “I need that application. I really want your family to have this dog. You’re the best fit, based on what we had talked about.” I kept pushing her to get me that application. I think the application was due Sunday night at nine or ten o’clock, and I still hadn’t gotten it. So I just reached out a final time and she responded right away. This is reaching out via Facebook messenger (we reach people in a lot of different ways). She messaged back and I got her to fill out the application.
Then my dad started struggling with cancer in 2020, and then there’s the pandemic and there were riots in Minnesota. All this stuff made us really busy. It was a chaotic time in everyone’s life, especially mine. So in 2021, I actually had to take a step back. After I took that step back, I got a text message from Sarah. She said, “you’ll never understand the impact that you had on me. That night that you reached out, what you didn’t know was that David and the kids were tucked in bed, and I had my bags packed. The only thing packed in that bag was a handgun. I had just closed the gun safe when you reached out again. That was my sign that I needed to do something more.”
So we’ve continued to work with that family since 2019, and they’re working on that dog becoming a service dog for them. We’ve worked with Sarah and David both, in different ways, providing recreational therapy, providing traditional therapy services, and it’s been life-changing for them.
Angela: That’s such a great story, and the work you guys are doing is just incredible. Can you tell us what the best way others can get involved or support the Invisible Wounds Project?
Russ: We are always looking for volunteers. We do a lot of events. That’s how we fundraise, primarily to pay for these therapy services. The cost for us to save a life is about $4,000. It’s not $4,000 that day. It’s over the lifetime of care and therapy and services. That’s the average cost. We do a lot of events, So we’re always looking for volunteers.
We’re also always looking for monetary donations and sponsorship of events. We’re doing a women’s retreat, and we announced it a week ago, and we have over 40 applicants for it already. We really didn’t even let anyone know about it. It just went like wildfire. Those types of things are great ways to get involved. We meet volunteers and people where their needs are or where their skills are.
Angela: I should say so. Speaking of needs, since you’ve been involved with the Invisible Wounds Project, how has the need to support our heroes evolved over the years?
Russ: Initially when I started, this was about volunteering and providing funds. That was when 9/11 was a bigger deal. It was about supporting people who were deployed. But truly the need is for people at home. The first responders and frontline medical staff–the last three years of pandemic, riots, and just the atmosphere–are really in a stressful, anxiety-filled, difficult place. We’re seeing an incredible amount of mental health trauma.
Angela: So you’re seeing those as the biggest challenges that our hero communities face today?
Russ: When we named it the Invisible Wounds Project, we recognized that the wounds of mental health are invisible, and they’re not talked about.
For example, we’re doing a PTSD medical retirement ceremony for law enforcement officers, because there’s been a lot that have left the profession due to PTSD in the last three years. They aren’t in a place where they’re recognized. It’s not talked about in their departments. Their partners don’t know what to say, oftentimes. What we hear is as soon as that happens, they get completely cut off by their department, by their partners. These are people that they might have worked with for 25 years, and now the people that they’ve called friends and partners–now nobody is reaching out to them, talking to them. That’s where we come in.
Mental health is not sexy. It’s not a fishing trip. It’s not always a dog. It’s often more hidden and invisible. What truly is talked about, what you see talked about, is the tip of the iceberg, and the iceberg is way below the water. So we’re really seeing a lot of people hurting that are just starting to ask for help. As we move forward we hope our work continues to be able to do that outreach, to get more people to come out of the shadows. Because I know they’re there. When we do one-on-one things or we do big events, we always end up talking to people. We’ve gotten really good at reading people. We get a lot of people who want to volunteer for us or get involved and help because that’s who our people are–they’re helpers. It’s starting to get really easy to recognize when these people need help themselves before they can really be the helper.
Angela: If you could send one message to the public from your hero community, what would it be?
Russ: To the public? It would be to acknowledge that invisible wounds are no different, or no less severe than, a physical wound. We talked about the law enforcement side of it and those PTSD retirements. If an officer is injured where they get shot and have this physical wound that prevents them from continuing their job, they’re going to get cake. They’re going to get balloons. They’re going to get an award. The city council is going to come together. The community is going to respond.
It’s no less dangerous that this officer, or this nurse, or this corrections officer, or this dispatcher has this trauma that ends up debilitating their life or killing them.
That part’s not recognized. So we need to do a better job–not just with our first responders but with all mental health issues. We need to acknowledge that it’s a real thing and that people aren’t always faking it. That’s a very knee-jerk reaction when it comes to mental health.
Angela: That is a great message. Thank you for your time today, Russ, and thank you for all the work you’re doing for your hero community and all of our hero communities.
Russ: Thank you so much to Homes for Heroes. We’re blessed, thank you.
The Mike Spencer Heart of Gold Interview with Angela Harren
Homes for Heroes social media coordinator, Angela Harren, talks to Mike Pika, the President of the Mike Spencer Heart of Gold Foundation. You can watch the full interview here or read the transcript of the interview below.
Angela: I’m here today with Mike Pika, the President of the Mike Spencer Heart of Gold Foundation. They were just awarded a $10,000 grant and we’re going to have a little talk with them. Mike can you tell us about the Mike Spencer Heart of Gold Foundation and share their story.
Mike: The Mike Spencer Heart of Gold Foundation is a foundation started in the Fridley fire chief’s name, to celebrate his legacy. Mike had a huge heart, always giving, always a smile on his face. We really wanted to start something to give back to our firefighter community in his name.
Angela: That’s great. Can you tell us about the Mike Spencer Heart of Gold Foundation and its mission to serve the firefighter community.
Mike: Our mission is to serve the firefighter community by giving back, starting with metro fire departments that worked closely with Mike. As we get larger, we will give to the whole Minnesota firefighter community–anything from buying them snacks for their day room, new couches, new gear, helping with new trucks, workout equipment. Also we will be giving to families that are dealing with different issues–cancer, heart issues, PTSD and stuff like that.
Angela: When was the Mike Spencer Heart of Gold Foundation created or founded? What was it that inspired them to create it?
Mike: The foundation was started officially in 2022, so this year we are brand new. Like I said previously, we wanted to keep Mike’s legacy going in the fire community and in the community itself. It started in 2022 and it was myself and vice president Liz. We got together and said “We need to start a foundation in his name,” so that’s how it started.
Angela: What types of resources does the Mike Spencer Heart of Gold Foundation provide the firefighter community?
Mike: Anything and everything. Actually the foundation is awarding its first grant in two weeks at our golf tournament. We are awarding the Columbia Heights Fire Department $5,000 to purchase a Kaiser Machine. The Kaiser Machine is part of our agility test. It’s a large chunk of metal that you hit with a hammer and it slides–it mimics some of the stuff that we do on the fire scene. We’re also partnering with Fridley Fire to memorialize Mike with a bronze statue outside of their station.
Angela: That’s awesome. Can you share any stories about the impact that the Mike Spencer Heart of Gold Foundation has had on the firefighter community?
Mike: We are pretty new. We’ve had a fundraiser where a lot of firefighters came. It was good to get everybody involved and get our name out there.
Angela: How will this grant from the Homes for Heroes Foundation help further the Mike Spencer Heart of Gold Foundation’s mission and support the hero community?
Mike: The grant that we got from Homes for Heroes will help us out tremendously by giving back to our firefighter community. We’ll be able to give more than we anticipated in the first year. It will help us out hugely.
Angela: Tell us the best ways others can get involved or support the Mike Spencer Heart of Gold Foundation.
Mike: The best way to get involved is check out our website and check out Facebook. and volunteer at our events. We have a golf event coming up on Friday, September 16th. You could come out and volunteer. You could get a foursome together to golf. If you want to get further involved, we have a winter event that’s coming up. That’s a fire-and ice-plunge, where local fire departments will get together and do a plunge into the ice cold water. There’s many ways to get involved with us. All you have to do is reach out and contact us. We’ll get back to you.
Angela: I know that the foundation is newer, so tell me a little bit about how you’ve seen the need to support our firefighters evolve over the years.
Mike: I’ve been a firefighter for seven years and the need for help is always there. It’s becoming more and more important, especially with PTSD. We need to help the fire departments out with their funds because our budgets are so small, and we can’t purchase everything for everybody. What firefighters see every day on their shift is not something the average person sees in their lifetime. And we see it maybe multiple times in a shift, so the need is continually growing.
Angela: If you could share one message with the public, from the firefighter community, what would that be?
Mike: Thank you. Thank you for always having our back.
Angela: That’s great. Thank you for joining us today, Mike, and we appreciate everything that you do for our communities and for showing up when nobody else wants to.
Mike: Thank you Homes for Heroes for the wonderful grant. It means a lot to the Mike Spencer Heart of Gold Foundation.
The Backing the Blue Line Interview with Angela Harren
Homes for Heroes social media coordinator, Angela Harren, talks to Kris Benysek of the Backing the Blue Line and our affiliate, Emily Jacobson. You can watch the full interview here or read the transcript of the interview below.
Angela: I’m here today with Kris from Backing the Blue Line, and Emily, one of our Homes for Heroes affiliates. And they were just granted a $10,000 check for their Backing the Blue Line Foundation. Kris, can you tell us about Backing the Blue Line and its mission to serve the wives of law enforcement?
Kris: So Backing the Blue Line was founded by Jennifer Whiteford. She recognized the need for a community of support for significant others–the significant others of Minnesota law enforcement officers. She created this community where we can reach out to each other and get support.
Angela: That’s fantastic. What type of resources does Backing the Blue Line provide the law enforcement community?
Kris: Backing the Blue Line is known for our signature blue roses, which we present at the funerals of fallen officers killed in the line of duty. That has been something that is available to some police officers. We will come out to the funeral. We prep the roses for the events and then we will come out to the funeral and hand them out to all the attendees.
It’s a way to symbolize that we’re here to support you. We also have other things that we do for our families. We do Christmas in June where we support a Minnesota law enforcement family in need by providing them with a Christmas.
We also do women’s retreats. We get a bunch of wives together and give them tools to cope with the stresses that are thrown at us on a daily basis.
Angela: Sounds like great resources. Emily, I know you’re not only an affiliate, you’re also a law enforcement wife. Can you share any stories about Backing the Blue Line that have made an impact on you and your family?
Emily: Yes. So the main thing that I personally have benefited from is this community of women. A lot of us spend time on Facebook for a variety of reasons, and we have an exclusive group only for police wives of Minnesota. They have been so crucial to me and my family because, as we all know, law enforcement has changed in the last few years. Support from outside of our own blue community is harder and harder to find.
And so any time that I have personally felt down or felt like I’m struggling or something simple–like my kid has a spot on his arm and I don’t know where it’s coming from–I can post anything from the big stuff to the little stuff. There’s always the option to post within the group anonymously, if you have something that you’re struggling with. You want to reach out to women who are living this life every single day. I do feel it’s something that is unique to law enforcement. They can chime in and offer advice and sometimes just saying, “I don’t have advice, but I will pray for you today” or “I’m thinking of you tonight and know that if you need a little more, you can message me directly” or even, “Hey, here’s this therapist I recommend that deals with people going through what you’re going through.”
It has been completely invaluable to me. I feel strongly it has allowed me to be a better wife, a better supporter of what my husband does, and a better person. I know these people understand me more than even a sibling, or a parent, or a friend would be able to do.
So it has meant everything to me, and I’m so thrilled that we’ve had this chance to give back, because it’s priceless.
Angela: I can see why you nominated them. So, Emily, as an ally, a wife, and as a Homes for Heroes affiliate lender, can you tell me a little bit about what the Circle of Giving and Homes for Heroes means to you?
Emily: In my business, I naturally want to offer my clients good customer service with Homes for Heroes. This takes that service to a whole extra level because your sphere of influence is where you get your business from. I would say about 65% of my business is law enforcement. The other 35% are firefighters, nurses, and teachers.
This is my sphere of people anyway. So now to be able to partner with Homes for Heroes and to offer this ability to reduce their expenses, to help them in their homeownership process is great. I know that I’m giving back to these people that give so much to all of us every single day. It’s so important for me. There’s not much that I can stand up and do personally, but this is my one part. I can use my business to give back to them.
It’s been absolutely incredible, and I can’t imagine anything that better suits my clients’ needs. They are in a position where they’re sharing with us their addresses, their Social Security numbers, their personal information. They know out the gate that I’m someone that supports them, that I’m someone who is going to take that seriously and keep that information private.
Being a part of Homes for Heroes, I feel that puts that message out there. It has certainly helped me grow my business. But it also helps fill a different emotional side, where I’m able to give back. It’s been an incredible experience.
I just love it so much.
Angela: It’s wonderful. Kris how will this grant from Homes for Heroes help Backing the Blue Line’s mission and support the loyal wives community?
Kris: It will allow us to continue supporting and doing the things we do for the families. Like Christmas in June, which we talked about. It also will help us to continue providing roses for funerals and supporting officers. Every time an officer is injured, we send a card and a basket. If there’s a retirement, we send a gift.
All these gifts that are sent–whether it’s for an injury, or retirement, or a sick child–it allows us to continue doing those things.
Angela: So what is the best way others can get involved to support Backing the Blue Line?
Kris: Because Backing the Blue Line is very specific to females, significant others, the best way for somebody who’s not within the law enforcement community to participate is to financially donate. Or they can volunteer at one of our events if we need outside volunteers.
Angela: Great. Since you’ve been involved in the law enforcement community, how has policing changed over the years? I know this seems like an obvious answer.
Kris: My husband and I have been married for 14 years, almost 15. When this relationship first started, law enforcement were heroes. Everybody respected them. And now we’re in an era where there doesn’t seem to be that kind of respect.
There’s no support from the community to continue policing. The support is the biggest thing that’s changed.
Angela: What are the biggest challenges that the law enforcement community faces today?
Kris: Support from the community. Accountability.
Angela: So if you could share one message to the public, from the law enforcement community and their wives, what would it be?
Kris: Those men and women in blue, brown, maroon, they just want to come home to their families at the end of the night. They all have families. They have friends. And their main goal is to keep our community safe and themselves safe.
Angela: Well, thank you for joining us today, ladies. Thank you for nominating this amazing foundation. Emily, thank you for everything that you do for our heroes. We are so glad you were able to join us today.
Kris: Thank you Homes for Heroes, for your foundation, for choosing our organization. It is such an honor and a blessing.
Homes for Heroes Foundation
Grants from the Homes for Heroes Foundation are made possible by the Homes for Heroes Circle of Giving and its network of real estate professionals who are committed to providing savings on home and mortgage buy, sell and refinance transactions for firefighters, EMS, law enforcement, military (active, reserves and veterans), healthcare professionals and teachers.
Please take a moment to learn more about the Homes for Heroes Foundation and the grants it provides nonprofit organizations who help heroes in need, or simply to make a donation.
About Homes for Heroes, Inc.
Homes for Heroes, Inc. is the largest nationwide network of affiliate real estate, mortgage, and local business specialists; committed to providing easy ways for heroes to save on a home. Shortly after 9/11, Homes for Heroes, Inc. was established to give back to firefighters, EMS, law enforcement, military (active, reserves and veterans), healthcare professionals and teachers for all they do. Since 2009, Homes for Heroes, Inc., has helped over 56,000 heroes save over $100 million on their real estate transactions, sold over $14 billion in real estate to heroes, actively partnered with 4,300 like-minded real estate and mortgage professionals who’ve joined in the mission, and donated over $1 million to heroes in need through the Homes for Heroes Foundation.