In 2014, David Lionheart and a small group of friends got together for a football game. Before the game, David was picking up a friend who had recently returned from active duty. When his friend first came home, David hadn’t seen much of a change. In fact, he says he’d appeared to be in great health.
That’s why, when his friend slipped into the car wearing a ‘Wounded Warrior’ hat, he was surprised. When he asked about the hat, David was shocked by his answer: After his time spent in the service, David’s friend was deaf in one ear.
“I almost couldn’t believe it when he told me,” David says. “While I had thought he looked completely healthy, there were things none of us could see he was dealing with. When he told me about all the things he was going through as a result of his time in the army, I was immediately motivated to do something.”
That something would eventually become the Hudson Valley-based nonprofit Play For Your Freedom, which raises awareness for the seen and unseen wounds veterans suffer from. Since its founding five years ago, the mission of the organization has been to provide fitness and peer-to-peer support to help veterans and their families make the transition from military to civilian life.
In order to help with this transition, Play For Your Freedom provides wellness workshops to veterans, many of which are currently receiving hospital treatment. At these workshops, veterans are provided with opportunities to participate in physical activities, with some offerings including football, equine therapy, wiffleball, and yoga, among other activities.
Veterans in attendance also have the chance to connect with the organization’s volunteers, some of whom are veterans and past workshop attendees themselves. Volunteers are neither paid nor professionally trained, which is something David believes has contributed to the organization’s growth and success these past several years.
“Something that I think makes the organization special is that all of our volunteers are people who deeply care about this mission and the veterans we serve,” says David. “Something we value is making ourselves available to our veterans—and I think making ourselves open and vulnerable encourages the veterans to let their guard down as well.”
Since the organization’s founding in 2014, Play For Your Freedom has expanded its resources to 15 different hospitals and eight different states. Since the first ones were held in 2016, the organization has hosted more than 4,000 veterans at their wellness workshops.
However, David says that the growth in numbers isn’t the only thing that motivates him and the volunteers with Play For Your Freedom. Rather, the real growth that matters to them is the quality of the services they provide to veterans at each workshop and event that they hold.
“Every time we hold a workshop, we tell ourselves that there’s no reason we can’t make a difference in the lives of the veterans who come here,” says David. “The veterans that come here have earned us the freedom we have to provide these resources, so whether 100 vets get off the bus or one does, my team and I do everything we can to make sure they, at the very least, get a chance to enjoy themselves.”