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Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF) held its first ever National Program Rendezvous (NPR) in Orlando, FL on March 13 – 16, 2016. The event was focused on training and better equipping our volunteers with the skills and knowledge they need to help heal the injured and disabled military service personnel and disabled veterans we serve nationwide.

Bringing together over 177 Volunteer Program Leads, Assistant Program Leads, Regional Coordinators, and Deputy Regional Coordinators it was a great opportunity to provide the tools and training they need to continue providing consistent therapeutic experiences at each of our programs across the country.  Special guest speakers at the NPR included Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense James Rodriguez; and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Director of Voluntary Services Sabrina Clark, among others.

The NPR was funded by a $298,200 grant through the Department of Veterans Affairs adaptive sport grant program, under the Office of Rehabilitation and Prosthetic Service. The grant is one of 86 awarded last year through the VA program and one of the few devoted to training adaptive sport practitioners.


The training curriculum and content for the NPR was generated by our volunteers through a series of questionnaires and surveys in-advance of the event – ensuring that key subject matter, resources, and educational opportunities desired by the volunteers were met and addressed over the course of the four days together.

“I spent 35 years working in Corporate America, and I shudder to think of how much time I wasted on conventions and other such pow-wows. They were often thinly disguised boondoggles to get out of the office and to someplace more fun. The National Program Rendezvous wasn’t like that at all. Day after day was filled with good information, valuable idea-sharing and heart-warming stories that all of us need to hear to keep us energized in the work we do for those who serve and who have served.  

Throughout the Rendezvous, we were made aware of how important it is for us to respect the trust that our donors and our participants place in us. The Rendezvous kept all of us focused on our mission, and on how valuable an opportunity we had been provided. I brought a swimsuit to the event but I never used it, that’s how engaged we were for the duration of the meeting.” – Jim Kissane, Assistant Program Lead, Kansas City, MO

The NPR was the first time in PHWFF’s 10-year history that all volunteer leadership and key personnel were brought together – and the eagerness to learn and the excitement in finally meeting one another in-person was palpable on March 13th at Registration.


DAY ONE: MARCH 13, 2016

Opening our first night together was PHWFF Chairman Bob Fitch, who also acted as MC for the general sessions at the NPR.


After welcoming the audience, a blessing, and leading the Pledge of Allegiance, Mr. Fitch introduced five special video greetings delivered by legendary fly fisher Lefty Kreh, former Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen, former Secretary of US Navy Gordon England, and longtime friend and benefactor Loralee West.  Each enthusiastically welcomed the volunteer leadership, lauded the accomplishments of PHWFF, and thanked all in attendance for their extraordinary work serving those men and women who have honorably served, and sacrificed for, our nation.

“One of the nicest things anyone ever did for me was to get me started fly fishing when I was about 16 years old.  Now we find for our wounded warriors that it can be a tremendous help in their recovery from the injuries they’ve suffered and we have a special obligation to all them who put their lives on the line for all of us.  Thank you for being a part of the program and good luck!” –Dick Cheney, former Vice President of the United States

PHWFF Founder and President Ed Nicholson following, speaking about the origins of PHWFF. Both he and CEO Ellen Killough thanked those assembled for their great contributions and efforts and highlighted the many tremendous accomplishments of PHWFF during the past 10-years as well as shared insights into the organizations next decade.

In closing the first evening, COO David Folkerts welcomed 1SG Ira Strouse, U.S. Army (ret),,SGM Jeremy Bruns, U.S. Army (ret), and Staff Sergeant George Draper, U.S. Army (ret) to the stage to address those in attendance.  Each shared their personal stories of recovery, rehabilitation, and about their volunteerism with PHWFF.  Speaking intimately of their journeys and how, because of the impact that PHWFF has had on their lives, that they now give back to our organization and their fellow veterans as volunteers.


DAY TWO: MARCH 14, 2016 

The second day of the National Program Rendezvous dawned bright – with all attendees eager to learn and further their contributions to their local communities and the veterans within.  The morning held numerous highlights during the general session – with a keynote speaker, strategic planning overview, interactive team building, and an administrative session.

We were honored to have Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense James Rodriquez address the assembled audience. He shared his personal story and eloquently provided insights into the perspective of the Department of Defense (DoD) and its Office of Warrior Care Policy.  His remarks focused on ensuring that the Nation’s wounded, ill, and injured Service members receive the support that they need through the DoD and the non-profit organizations and partners they collaborate with, like PHWFF.


CEO Ellen Killough welcomes Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense James Rodriquez to the NPR

Following his powerful address, and a well-deserved ovation, event Facilitator Kate Zabriskie led the group through an informative and entertaining group exercise: “Fish Tales: Casting Meaningful Messages.”  This exercise paired small groups together to create a PHWFF campaign poster aimed at the veterans community.  Incredible posters were created and all were tied together by our common threads of relationship building, fly fishing, and healing.


After a short break, PHWFF staff members David Folkerts, Megan Pierce, Tony Dunay, and Leah McConnell dove into leading the first of three General Sessions.  This day’s focus was a Support and Administrative Overview, reviewing policies, practices, and procedures of key managerial components for PHWFF Programs like budgets, equipment ordering, reporting, and in-kind donations.


After a short break, PHWFF staff members David Folkerts, Megan Pierce, Tony Dunay, and Leah McConnell dove into leading the first of three General Sessions.  This day’s focus was a Support and Administrative Overview, reviewing policies, practices, and procedures of key managerial components for PHWFF Programs like budgets, equipment ordering, reporting, and in-kind donations.

Following a short lunch, the afternoon consisted of small group break-out sessions.  These sessions offered the opportunity for in-depth training and discussion on specific topics relevant for all PHWFF Programs.


Day one included:

–  Engaging Your Community: Social Media, Marketing, and Communications (Dan Morgan, Director of Communications)

–  Fly Fishing Outings (Regional Coordinators Carole Katz and Steve Perry)

–  Local Fundraising (Regional Coordinator Derrick Dietz and Assistant Program Lead Steve Hock)

–  National Programs (COO David Folkerts)

–  Volunteer and Donor Recognition (Development Coordinator Mindi Roberts)

–  Participant/Volunteer Recruitment (Program Lead Jan Schnorr; Fanita Jackson-Norman, Acting Chief of Voluntary Services, Orlando VAMC; Eileen Jones, Chief of Recreational Therapy at the West Palm Beach VAMC; Regional Coordinator Emeritus Phil Johnson; and Program Lead Russ Ambrose)

In advance of the NPR, each attendee chose the particular break-out sessions they thought best suited their Programs needs.  The day concluded with a Regional Coordinator/CEO Roundtable – a gathering aimed at sharing Regional best practices, trouble shooting, and a friendly discussion about Regional growth, reorganization, and unity.


On the morning of March 15th, Special Guest, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson spoke to the general session. He shared a powerful message touching on the need for partnerships, collaboration, and the meaning of the gift of hope.


“This is an organization that is making a difference every day.” – Dep Sec Sloan Gibson, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Following Deputy Secretary Gibson’s eloquent words, and a rousing ovation, the second general session began.  The next special guest of the day, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Director of Voluntary Services, Sabrina Clark, gave an engaging and informative talk on VA Partnerships with Non-Profits. Ms. Clark addressed the impact of the Veterans Affairs Voluntary Services, the role of PHWFF volunteers and programs within that program, and how the two can best work together to further the physical and emotional rehabilitation of injured and disabled veterans nationwide.


Following Ms. Clark’s energizing address was the second general session: “Working with Participants with Disabilities.” This session consisted of a panel comprised of Regional Coordinator Ray Babineau, Program Lead Dr. Tamar Franklin, Physical Therapist Kelly McGaughey, Program Lead and Veteran Ambassador Jake Blizzard, Assistant Program Lead and Veteran Ambassador Kyle Chanitz,, and Assistant Program Lead and Veteran Ambassador Nicky Dayton. The panel imparted knowledge and understanding of disabilities participants in our Programs may face and offered both professional and first hand insights into these disabilities while sharing strategies for working with those impacted by these conditions.  Particular focus was paid to physical ailments, mobility challenges, Traumatic Brain Injuries, Post-Traumatic Stress, Military Sexual Trauma, and substance abuse.


The afternoon was devoted to the second set of in-depth, small group break-out sessions on additional topics proposed by PHWFF volunteers.


The topics for March 15th included:

–  Program Lead Roundtables                                                   

–  Adaptive Equipment & Fly Fishing/Fly Tying Instructional Resources (COO David Folkerts)

–  Participant/Volunteer Recruitment (Program Lead Jan Schnorr; Fanita Jackson-Norman, Acting Chief of Voluntary Services, Orlando VAMC; Eileen Jones, Chief of Recreational Therapy at the West Palm Beach VAMC; Regional Coordinator Emeritus Phil Johnson; and Program Lead Russ Ambrose) PHOTO

–  Fly Fishing Outings (Regional Coordinators Carole Katz and Steve Perry)

–  Volunteer and Donor Recognition (Development Coordinator Mindi Roberts)


The afternoon concluded with Regional Roundtables, a terrific opportunity for Regional Coordinators to convene with all of their Program Leads, many of whom are separated by huge geographic distances, and discuss progress, growth, and administrative procedures within their particular PHWFF Region

DAY FOUR: MARCH 16, 2016

Chairman Emeritus, Douglas Dear, opened the final morning of the National Program Rendezvous with a rousing welcome and thank you to all the volunteers for their dedicated efforts over the years.  He spoke of his origins with PHWFF, the organizations growth over the years, and how the great efforts of those in attendance ensured the not only the program’s success, but its ability to continue serving the veterans community in the decade to come.

Following Mr. Dear, two PHWFF Board Trustees Adam Fliss, JD and Brian Trow took the stage to provide insights on their two particular areas of expertise.  Mr. Fliss spoke on “Ethics and the Public Trust” – further educating the group to the importance of their roles, and associated responsibilities, as representatives of a non-profit organization.   Whereas Mr. Trow provided an educational, hands-on general session seminar: “Casting Instruction Made Easy” – a dynamic session complimentary to earlier break-out sessions (Adaptive Equipment, Fly Fishing Outings, and Working with Participants with Disabilities).


The final session of the day was devoted to an engaging general Q&A session.  Throughout the NPR, questions were submitted by attendees both online and through various question/suggestion boxes in the conference center.  This enabled attendees to pose questions directly to PHWFF leadership, Staff, and the Board of Trustees on relevant topics of interest to them.  Over 60 questions were submitted during the NPR and members of leadership, staff, and the Board of Trustees engaged each question thoroughly and thoughtfully – satisfying those few outstanding items that were not covered during the comprehensive general sessions and breakout sessions over the preceding 3 days.


“The organizational skills that laid the foundation for the success of the National Program Rendezvous were evident throughout the conference.  I cannot think of a single topic that would be important for a new Program Leads that was not covered. I no longer view National as a distant unknown entity but as a source of willing help. I have heard nothing but praise from all who attended the conference.  As a new Program Lead I have increased confidence and have been shown a path to success.  Congratulations on both a successful and a memorable conference. A standard for future conferences has been set.” – Jim Owen, Program Lead – Tucson, AZ 

PHWFF Founder and President, Ed Nicholson, concluded this tremendously successful training event with a few words of thanks and appreciation.  He echoed the long-held sentiments that it is our volunteers who have ensured the success of PHWFF over the past decade.  They have enabled his simple concept to serve thousands of disabled veterans each year with our unique kind of therapy – that of the fly rod, reel, vise, and line.  He noted that the Program transcends fly fishing – it builds relationships and within that is where much healing occurs.  Relationships were strengthened and built amongst the PHWFF family during these past days of training – and through them we can continue to serve more injured and disabled veterans throughout the United States in the decades to come.


It was insightful, meaningful and well run.  It was exactly what I needed and I had the same feedback from the Program Lead’s in my region.  This will help propel us forward to meet all of our expectations as a viable entity to meet out our mission of helping those that serve overcome their disabilities.” – Tim Daly, Regional Coordinator New York/New Jersey

For a little more than a decade PHWFF has focused on healing those who serve.  It is through the tremendous contributions of our volunteers nationwide that last year we served over 7400 deserving members of our armed services.  Over 3500 volunteers dedicated more than 200,000 hours of service helping our cause and the injured and disabled veterans we serve.  The NPR focused on providing them with the training and tools they need to continue their positive impact on their local veteran communities with our unique form of therapy and celebrating their tremendous efforts and selfless volunteerism

The NPR wouldn’t have been possible if not for the generous grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the monumental efforts of Megan Pierce, PHWFF Chief Program and Administrative Officer.  Great efforts, support, and contributions came from Mindi Roberts, Tiffany Burch, Leah McConnell, David Folkerts, Tony Dunay, Jan Schnorr, Larry Kelly, and all the volunteer-leaders who played a critical role on the NPR Content Committee.  It is due to the input and support of PHWFF volunteers that this training event was such a tremendous success, enabling our 200+ Programs to better serve the men and women who have honorably served, and sacrificed for, our nation.