Local adventure nonprofit helps veterans build community
FRISCO — In September of 2016, Summit County resident and veteran Austin Breuninger registered an adventure nonprofit, High Country Veteran’s Adventures, to help other nearby veterans use the power of nature and outdoor sports to combat the trauma they experienced during their military service. Breuninger knew from personal experience how nature was healing for his own mental health and decided to share this realization with other veterans.
After a fulfilling 12-year military career, having a normal life with a regular job took a toll on Breuninger’s mental health. Breuninger lost several friends to suicide and he felt that what saved him was the ability to lose himself in the Summit County mountains and waterways.
With goals of Breuninger’s new nonprofit organization being to create a peer-support network, Breuninger began hosting group activities like stand-up paddleboarding, backcountry splitboarding and cross-country skiing. While the turnout for Breuninger’s first few events was slim, he was happy to help the veterans that did show, no matter how few. Now, Breuninger says he has formed a solid community of veterans in the area.
“We’re starting to see repeat participants and then the numbers are growing too,” Breuninger said. “When we first started, we held events and a lot of times no one would make it. But it’s changed. We’re getting our name out there and that’s I think most of the battle.”
Breuninger explained that organization provides support for all veterans, as he felt that there is a lot of support for disabled veterans but considerably less for non-disabled veterans. An interesting phenomenon that Breuninger has found — through partnership with the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus mental health clinic — is that despite the fact that a veteran may be experiencing mental health issues such as PTSD or depression, they feel unworthy of services because they “have all their limbs,” Breuninger said.
“People feel shameful for seeking help when they weren’t injured,” Breuninger said.
Breuninger also said the most common thing people have trouble with after serving in the military is connecting with people who have not served.
“We’re a social net for people that have fallen out of connection with the service,” Breuninger said. “A lot of times veterans don’t feel they can communicate clearly.”
He added that giving people space to talk and connect with other veterans takes the communication barrier away and helps veterans work through things with people that understand what they are dealing with.
“We found value in this and we just wanted to share it with other people,” Breuninger said in reference to finding refuge in outdoor recreation.
There are now five members on the board of directors three years after the launch. All but one are veterans, the other being an outdoor industry professional, as well as three outdoor guides. The nonprofit earned a group paddleboarding permit last summer to conduct outings on Lake Dillon and hosted a hut trip last spring, which they will be hosting again this year at the Breckenridge-based Francie’s Cabin.
“We kind of want to incentivize these smaller trips and phrase them as warmups (for the hut trip),” Breuninger said.
Last year, the hut trip featured yoga sessions led by the Veteran Yoga Project. Breuninger said that including veterans in every way possible increases connection and opens conversations within the groups. Breuninger said that one of his goals going forward is to continue partnering with organizations offering similar services to create a crossover effect.
“As much as we can get our events led by veterans,” Breuninger said.
Breuninger wants the nonprofit to be accessible to all veterans, so all events are free and gear is provided to those who don’t already have their own.
“We have no interest in turning any veteran away,” Breuninger said, adding that this includes disabled veterans.
This is possible through donations which come from private individuals, local corporations and the local government via town grants. Breuninger explained that the board members and guides are just facilitating these activities, as they all have other jobs. Breuninger is a full-time fire inspector for the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District.
“Doing consistent events, that’s our goal moving forward,” Breuninger said. “Adding in more stuff, getting on the lake was a huge deal and then offering things for different skill levels.”
While High Country Veteran Adventures hosts activities like backcountry skiing and snowboarding that require more preparation, Breuninger also looks for activities with a low learning curve that may be more accessible. Snowshoeing, for example, is an activity Breuninger finds that most able-bodied veterans can do. While Breuninger said it may not be the most exciting activity, it gets veterans outside and together.
“Everything’s going exactly as I envisioned at this pace,” Breuninger said. “We’re getting buy-in from participants, buy-in from the public, buy-in from the private sector. The word is spreading.”
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