AFF Gets Vets Outside and Active
By Mark Carter
Its name may suggest political fundraising, but the mission of the nonprofit Arkansas Freedom Fund is simple: Get veterans outside and active.
Nonpartisan, nonpolitical and for good measure nondenominational, the group’s lone focus is providing opportunities for U.S. veterans of military service to connect and engage in outdoor activities.
AFF was founded in 2010 by retired veterans Mark Leonard, Don Kennedy and Fred Stuebe, and two of its biggest annual fundraising events are upcoming: The Freedom Golf Scramble at Diamante Golf Club in Hot Springs Village on May 13, and the AFF “Fishing with Heroes” Bass Tournament at Lake Dardanelle in Russellville June 7-9.
These fundraisers are crucial to the organization’s operations. Along with private donations and some corporate sponsorship, they make up the volunteer organization’s entire operating budget.
“We can say for a fact that 100 percent of every dollar that comes in goes back into programs,” said Leonard, the driving force behind the group and its executive director.
AFF fills a gap, serving veterans not eligible for assistance from other private organizations. Leonard noted the Wounded Warrior Project, for example, only assists post-9/11 veterans injured in combat.
“That leaves out a lot of veterans,” he said.
AFF indeed is distinguished by its reach – serving all branches of service, all conflicts, injured or not – and also its focus of keeping vets active. AFF offers free recreational and rehabilitative programs in hunting, fishing, hiking, golf, cycling, kayaking, martial arts and even scuba diving. Each activity is adapted to veterans’ specific needs.
Jason Lentz, a U.S. Navy veteran from Fort Smith, lost his leg in a post-service accident and heard about AFF through the Veterans Administration. Now he’s a regular participant in the annual AFF Arkansas Challenge bike ride held each October in Little Rock.
“When I first heard about it, I had just lost my leg and was depressed,” he said. “AFF provided me with a bike and invited me to come ride with them. That began my healing process and gave me a reason to get off the couch.”
AFF programs are held across the state. Its hunting program, for example, includes 650 exclusive acres in Calhoun County. Leonard estimates that 180 hunts are held annually on the “Freedom Hunters Lease,” made available through support from Fidelity Information Systems.
Leonard likes to say AFF’s “main purpose in life is to get vets outside and active.” But he recognizes the organization’s most important role may be reintroducing vets to the camaraderie and bond unique to soldiers.
“These programs give veterans back a brotherhood and get them involved with a new family,” he said. “In the military, units grow close and that’s hard to replace when they come home. We let them know that no one is out there alone. AFF provides vets with a new friendship base, all designed to help, assist, mentor and support so they’re not just sitting at home.”
More information on AFF and its programs is available at ArkansasFreedomFund.org.