Kelly Kowall is one of those rare individuals capable of turning tragedy into a wide-reaching good. As the mother of an active-duty soldier in Afghanistan, Kowall was aware of the possibility of losing her son, but no doubt that foreknowledge did not make the news that Army Spc. Corey Kowall had been killed on September 20, 2009, any easier to bear.
While such a loss is enough to break many people, Kowall sought to find a way to honor her son's memory through a means that had brought them together while also providing a way to help others deal with their grief from the death of a military soldier. Her answer? Boating. As a Florida-native she and Corey had enjoyed getting out on the water when he could be home.
After attending Corey's funeral services in Tennessee, Kowall saw a Typhoon deck boat for sale, and decided she would buy it, not just for her, but for all military personnel and those who lost loved ones in war. After a lot of work, Kowall finally brought F.A.V.E. together—Families of the Fallen, Active Duty, Veterans, Enlisted.
The concept is simple: Kowall and a small staff of volunteers contact eligible individuals and families through organizations like Gold Star Wives of America (for women who lost husbands on the battlefield), Gold Star Mothers of American (for mothers who grieve the death of a son or daughter who served in the military), TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) and various veteran's associations. F.A.V.E. then offers to host a fully-paid boat trip, anything from a morning fishing excursion to a day journey to an island off the coast of Florida.
“We're trying to do a minimum of one trip every month,” Kowall said. “So far we've exceeded that goal. Funds dictate a lot of how many trips we can do.”
Kowall reports F.A.V.E Boating Expeditions has served 22 families through April, 2011, a family being defined as anything from a mother/daughter group to a diverse group of individuals (soldiers, veterans, Gold Star family members or any other person that has been affected by the death of a soldier) of six or more.
Meals are provided through Tasty Dinner Solutions in Riverview, Fla. Kowall wants to be sure to provide a first-class experience on the water, and Tasty Dinner's home-cooked-style meals are always a big hit.
“The passengers are military, or come from a military background, so they always want to help,” Kowall said. ”But it's like 'No, this is your day of honor. Just get on the boat, sit back and relax; we want to take care of you.'”
Every boater knows what it feels like to step off the dock and leave his worries behind. While the therapeutic value of boating has not been officially recognized, there is definitely something about the rocking of the waves, the smell of the water and the feel of the sun on your face that can make a big difference to someone who is suffering.
Army Staff Sargent Forsti Miller is currently stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. He has served several tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and had the opportunity to go on a day trip with F.A.V.E. last year.
“I honestly didn't expect much, but it was great just to relax and enjoy the day,” Sgt. Miller said. “It was neat to do something you don't get to do every day.”
Sgt. Miller's comments are echoed by scores of other military personnel and families who have taken a trip with F.A.V.E.
The Other Half
One focus of the organization is women in the military. Often women are forgotten as being an important part of our nation's defense, and Kowall seeks to make them realize they are remembered.
Anne Hasler is a long-time friend of Kowall's and was instrumental in getting F.A.V.E. off the ground.
“Kelly has worked with all kinds of women involved in the military life,” Hasler said. “Active duty, retired, Gold Star women, she really wants to help them especially.”
In addition, Kowall wants to make sure veterans of past wars are not overlooked.
“The very first trip Kelly took was with some Vietnam veterans,” Hasler said. “They were surprised someone would want to do something for them. It was a great experience.”
To further enhance the benefits that come with the program, Kowall is planning to bring volunteer PTSD and grief counselors onboard in the near future.
“Being out on the water helps them to open up, even if they've been in counseling or groups before,” Kowall said. “It's just a different situation that these boating excursions provide: a relaxed setting and a safe environment in which healing can begin through communication, mentoring, counseling and sharing of stories between those who have experienced the pain that stems from the death of a military service member and those who understand that pain."
F.A.V.E. currently works out of Apollo Beach in Florida, about halfway between Tampa and Sarasota. Kowall does have offers from people closer to Sarasota to use their boats, and the group has already organized and conducted kayaking trips as far north of Tampa as the Weeki Wachee and Crystal rivers.
As the program has grown, more and more people have offered the use of their boats, and donation money is used to fund trips and go towards a boat building fund.
“Right now, all work done for F.A.V.E. is volunteer,” Kowall said. “Fifty cents of every donated dollar goes into the operating account to help fund the excursions and the other 50 cents goes to the boat-building account.”
The boat-building account goes toward getting a houseboat from Destination Yachts, a real goal for Kowall. “One of the hopes with the houseboat is that we'd be able to go all along the Gulf and Atlantic coastline, offering these expeditions. It would also allow us to do longer overnight excursions,” she said. “The biggest dream would be to have a second boat to do trips up the Pacific coastline.”
Destination Yachts has committed to building the houseboat at cost once the proper amount of funds has been raised.
How To Help
F.A.V.E. Boating Expeditions has a 501 (c) (19) designation from the federal government, which is reserved for non-profit organizations dealing specifically with the military in some way. With this new designation, interested people can turn any donation into a 100 percent tax write-off.
“Even a dollar makes a difference,” Kowall said. “If I can get 50 people to donate a dollar, that's a trip for at least one person we are trying to help.”
Obviously the cost of each trip varies quite a bit, depending on the price of gas, the length and weight of the boat, and other expenses incurred due to the boating activity that is planned.
"Although we hold fundraisers and solicit for donations to help fund this endeavor, I really prefer to find ways to raise money that can also be a benefit to others" Kowall stated.
That is why she and a few volunteers are contacting qualified companies, associations and organizations about an opportunity that could possibly provide them with a refund from their utility company.
And who is qualified? Any company, organization or association that is paying commercial or industrial utility rates for electric, gas and/or telephone can benefit.
This includes, but is not limited to, manufacturers, plants, factories, processing facilities, commercial printers, boat builders and companies that manufacture products for boats, churches, hospitals, non-profit organizations, villages, townships, school districts, federal, state, county and city governments.
"What makes this truly a win, win, win, situation is that there is absolutely no out-of-pocket cost to any qualified company, organization or association unless they receive a refund,” Kowall said. “Just a simple fax from them to ICG guarantees that F.A.V.E. will receive a $50 minimum referral donation. No commercial or industrial account is too large or too small for this opportunity," Kowall said. "It's always exciting when an entity just trying to help us out with this referral donation finds out that they are going to be getting a refund. Although they are often surprised, they are always thrilled. I would love for any person who may be reading this article and wants to help us receive one of these referral donations to contact me directly.”
To learn more about F.A.V.E., visit www.favebe.com or call 813-321-0885. Kowall also welcomes emails at firstname.lastname@example.org.