Bradenton man to hike trail to spotlight military veterans issues

rdymond@bradenton.comMay 12, 2014 

MANATEE -- Christopher Davis' dream was to one day hike the Appalachian Trail to bring awareness to a cause closest to his heart -- returning veterans.

To do on someone's time clock would be an unexpected treat.

His dream has come true.

Davis made a pitch about a year ago to his new boss, Bob Rosinsky, president and CEO of Goodwill Manasota.

"There is something I've always wanted to do," Davis told Rosinsky. "When I was sitting in Afghanistan in 2002 with the U.S. Army, I promised myself that if I lived through the war, I would walk the entire Appalachian Trail for a good cause."

Davis proposed his "good cause" would shine light on the issue of military veterans coming home and having trouble accessing services.

Rosinsky immediately said "yes" even though it meant Davis would be physically out of pocket for five months, hiking with a backpack between Mount Katahdin, Maine, and Springer Mountain, Ga., while remaining on the payroll.

"Chris is still part of our team," Rosinsky said. "It's kind of a redeployment for Chris."

As it turns out, the story of Davis' May 28-to-Thanksgiving trek and why Rosinsky said yes is as much about Rosinsky and his enthusiasm and passion for military veterans as it is about his bucket list adventure.

'One step at a time'

Davis, 35, was hired by Rosinsky in January 2013 to be the veteran's program manager for Goodwill Manasota's new American Veterans and Their Families Initiative.

Goodwill Manasota is well known locally as a not-for-profit organization whose mission is "changing lives through the power of work."

It helped 329 veterans find jobs in 2013, according to Goodwill Manasota records.

But Rosinsky said he wanted to go beyond just landing jobs for veterans.

Working with an annual budget of roughly $100,000, Davis helps veterans and their families when they are down and out. Program funding comes from grants and sales of donated items.

"Chris provides information for vets to get housing, jobs, insurance, benefits, social integration, clothing, food, legal aide, transportation and medical," said Yen Reed, director of marketing for Goodwill Manasota. "He works with hundreds of community partners."

Rosinsky said Davis has done a stellar job.

"People have visited and said that our program has gotten more traction than other vet programs they are aware of," Rosinsky said. "I believe the progress we are making is due to Chris.

"Chris' program is evolving," Rosinsky added. "We hope to provide services for every veteran in the drawdown as we leave Iraq and Afghanistan. We have a lot of people struggling. We hope that Goodwill is the doorway past that struggle."

It's hard to imagine a CEO giving the green light to a key employee to hike the Appalachian Trail for five months, but Rosinsky is more than OK with it.

"I immediately considered the fact that the screen got bigger for us to project on," Rosinsky said. "We can reach a national audience and get people to recognize that vets need assistance."

While Davis is gone, his assistant, Don Hill, will run the program, Rosinsky said.

Davis said he thinks the Appalachian Trail will be symbolic for veterans.

"It's not how high or low we go on the peaks or valleys. It's taking one step after another," said Davis who graduated from the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee last week as the Outstanding Graduate after serving 14 years with the U.S. Army with seven tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I will make it to Georgia because I will keep walking. I think that's the message we want to send to vets, 'If you just take one step and then another, you will get there.'"

Davis can thank the late Guy Kelnhofer of Wisconsin for making his Appalachian trek a reality. Kelnhofer, Rosinsky's uncle, was captured in Wake Island during World War II and spent four years in a prisoner-of-war camp.

"I saw some of the issues he had coming back," Rosinsky said.

Rosinsky noted veterans like his uncle don't always get needed services but it's not because the services are not available.

"When vets come out, they tend to get isolated," Rosinsky said. "It's not so much that things aren't out there, it's just that there is a lack of focus and a lack of assistance to help them access what is there,"

30,000-plus Manatee County vets

Manatee County has 36,000 veterans, Davis said.

"The 2011 census reported 81,000 veterans in Manatee, Sarasota, DeSoto and Hardee counties," Davis said. "Manatee is definitely in the top three of Florida's counties for number of vets.

"There are young vets as well," Davis added.

Davis recalled a recent case where he helped a vet access a Veteran's Administration housing program for chronically homeless vets.

"The sky is the limit when it comes to what we can do to put vets back on track," Davis said.

Goodwill Manasota will be getting a lot of value out of Davis' trek, Rosinsky said.

"Chris is going to do a blog where people can follow him every day (available through experiencegoodwill.org or linked directly at trailjournals.com/goodwillwalking)," Rosinsky said. "We will also hook up with media all along the trek and give updates on his progress. Some people will go out and walk with him."

Rosinsky plans to meet Davis at Harper's Ferry, W. Va., in August and walk about 100 miles over a week.

Davis is also fundraising. People can donate from five cents to $1 per mile at experiencegoodwill.org, which will have links on the home page, Reed said.

"Whether he raises $2,000, $10,000 or $50,000 for his program is inconsequential when you look at the impact of raising awareness over that longer period of time," Rosinsky said.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @ RichardDymond.

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