Veterans Find the Lives they Deserve through FOCUS

We honor our veterans this month and salute the organizations dedicated to helping them live productive and rewarding lives after service, such as FOCUS Marines Foundation. YouthBridge partner Wayne C. Kaufmann Foundation has faithfully funded FOCUS since 2016, helping the organization to continue its mission of serving our nation’s veterans in their transition to civilian life.

“Nothing is off the table in these discussions,” says Jennifer Jefferson, FOCUS Marine’s Board Secretary and Team Leader. “They drop their backpack, which gives them the floor, and are free to speak about their feelings and experiences without judgment because they’re among their brothers and sisters.”

Jefferson is describing day four of the FOCUS program, a seven-day, completely free course for veterans struggling with the transition from military life to civilian. The program was created in 2010 by Vietnam-era Marines who wanted better for the generation of post-9/11 veterans. “You bring a lot of baggage with you back into society when you’ve experienced combat – and sometimes aren’t treated well by society – so these toxic feelings of anger, negativity and worthlessness can build up and spill over into your family life, your work and relationships with others,” she says.

Jefferson is speaking as a Marine veteran herself who, while never seeing combat, has sat with hundreds of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan and heard their stories. While many have tried other “self-help” programs, they find something truly unique with FOCUS, she says.

The program takes place on private property in rural Augusta, Missouri, which is donated to the organization four times a year, offering participants space to explore, reflect and enjoy some outdoor activities during downtime. “But this isn’t a vacation,” says Jefferson. “We do a lot of deep, soul-searching work designed to help them reconcile their past with their present, really understand who they are, why they do the things they do, and what they need to do differently.”

She explains that during the course of the week, FOCUS is trying to guide them to “that one thing that will really have an impact” and then help them set tangible goals to achieve in the first 90 days. “That may include overcoming an addiction, seeking mental health therapy or starting down a career path,” says Jefferson. FOCUS pulls in resources and collaborations with other veteran-support organizations from across the country to assist graduates in taking the steps to make their goals a reality. Through a new FOCUS Graduate Program, graduates of the week-long course also have the opportunity to enroll and receive structured, long-term mentoring.

One aspect of the program is bringing in motivational speakers, both military and civilian. One of the most impactful, says Jefferson, is St. Louis native John O’Leary, who at nine-years old accidentally set himself on fire, suffering third-degree burns on 87% of his body. Today, O’Leary is an author, speaker and piano player – without fingers. “They see him plucking away at the keys, hear about his journey to overcome fear and self-doubt and his message to ‘take all of life as a gift,’ and they think ‘OK, I can do this.’”

If you would like to donate or have any questions about this organization, please contact Allison McDonald.