By Meghan Chua
For graduate student Nick Harnish, giving back is the best way to heal.
Harnish, a military veteran and former first responder, volunteers with Wisconsin Hero Outdoors, a nonprofit that connects veterans, service members, and first responders to outdoor and recreational activities.
Now in its third year, Wisconsin Hero Outdoors has partnered with Lakewood WWV Camp in Lake Geneva to create a cultural retreat that gives the veteran and first responder community a space of their own. Harnish, a Public Humanities Scholar with the UW–Madison Center for the Humanities, is leading a project to renovate a lighthouse at the camp, turning it into a cultural center.
“It’s going to be the beacon of hope for our veterans and first responders. A lighthouse is very fitting for that,” Harnish said.
The Public Humanities Exchange (HEX) program supports graduate students at UW–Madison like Harnish leading projects in collaboration with community partners. Each project reflects the community partner’s existing needs and the graduate student’s research interest and expertise.
Plans for the lighthouse renovation include installing a patch wall for service members and veterans to represent their unit, and restoring a former bar area into a catering counter that will serve groups during Wisconsin Hero Outdoors’ events. As a space for veterans and first responders to share stories, the cultural center will include a library of books written by veterans on topics like transitioning back to civilian life.
Harnish said that Wisconsin Hero Outdoors is unique in providing space not only for veterans, but also for police, firefighters, and emergency medical services (EMS) workers.
“Some of those invisible wounds with post-traumatic stress disorder or trauma-based injuries, you’re seeing that a lot more with fire, law, and EMS and there’s not quite the same support system,” Harnish said. “Wisconsin Hero Outdoors also recognizes that, and the entire executive team and board are all first responders and veterans ourselves.”
The cultural center, called Havenwood, is scheduled to open in spring 2020.
The organization also serves the families of first responders and veterans. Part of the renovations at Lakewood WWV Camp including building five cabins where first responders, veterans, and their families can stay for a week-long retreat. Wisconsin Hero Outdoors will partner with other, similar organizations to bring families to Lakewood and design programming for them during their stay.
“Whether you’re a kid of a military family or the family of a law enforcement officer, everyone serves because that individual who is in the service brings a lot of the baggage or they bring work home with them and so the entire family will experience it,” Harnish said.
Harnish currently works at the Department of Military Affairs as a state program coordinator, organizing programs for military-connected youth. His master’s degree program at the UW–Madison School of Human Ecology emphasizes community organizing, human development, nonprofit management, and public humanities.
Harnish wanted to earn a graduate degree while also working and volunteering to better himself and his career.
“Human ecology was a nice broad concept where we were able to kind of dictate which path we wanted to go – whether it was child and youth development or family studies, to nonprofit management [and] community organization,” he said. “I do a little bit of all of that with my master’s program since it’s so open.”
Since Wisconsin Hero Outdoors also works with other organizations that host camps, as well as other veteran services organizations, Harnish’s studies in community organization and nonprofit management are well-suited to the organization.
He is also certified in mindfulness-based stress reduction and has experience with wilderness therapy, allowing him to help design programs that work.
“That’s where Havenwood is really unique,” he said. “I’m going to give you this space to be alone with your thoughts and your feelings and allow you to process them. And I want to give you the tools and resources to process it, versus forcing that process to happen.”
That might be by building a connection while fishing next to another veteran, or meeting someone to call when a former first responder is having a tough day. The day programs Wisconsin Hero Outdoors runs include activities like golfing, canoeing, and kayak fishing – a unique sport of its own – that get the participants outside together.
“What a lot of veterans and first responders miss the most out of their service is that sense of higher purpose or sense of belonging,” Harnish said. “If you can give them that sense of belonging, you can help some of those wounds heal.”